Nazi Germany burned them. So too has Iran. Apartheid South Africa banned them and China is still doing so.
Reading exposes you to new ideas. Reading is a way out, up and forward. Illiteracy sentences you to a life of low income, misery and crime. It is no accident that, according to the National Literacy Trust, one in six of our prison population have difficulty reading and writing. 25% of young offenders have literacy skills which are below that of the average 7 year old.
So what is the rationale behind Justice Minister Chris Grayling’s ban on parcels containing books sent by family and friends to inmates?
Grayling, of course, has had access to pretty much any book he chose throughout his life. He attended the Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe, before moving to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, which – I can confirm - has a pretty decent library in its own right, and is only a gentle stroll through Clare to the University Library itself, a legal deposit library which is entitled to request a free copy of any and every book published in the UK and Ireland.
And as the first non-lawyer for more than 300 years to become Lord Chancellor, he surely knows the value of books and ‘book-learning’.
The problem is, Grayling regards reading as a privilege. He is entitled. Prisoners are not. The book ban is part of the creation of “a regime that is more Spartan unless you do the right thing”. (By the by, as an historian, he should be aware that Sparta may have been a cruel and militaristic society, but it never banned the written word.)
To be fair, not all books are banned per se. The rubbish in the ill-stocked prison libraries will of course be available. What will not be available is anything that you want to read or that friends recommend you read. Ricky Tomlinson has spoken movingly about being given a copy of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists when serving a prison sentence in the 1970s. It changed his life. It changed who he was and who he has become.
Books can do that. Which is why they need to be freely available as a right to the very people who, as the statistics demonstrate, have been starved of them.
By withdrawing the opportunity for prisoners to read widely, Grayling is implicitly confirming that prisons under this government have lost even the pretence of being about rehabilitation.
The move has rightly been condemned by writers, prison reformers and everyone who believes that the majority of crime is the result of a lack of education and opportunity.
It is nasty, and peevish, and a reflection of a particular way of thinking which we have seen too often from this government.
Grayling and his privileged colleagues should be ashamed of themselves.
Today from the everysmith vault: The megapod has been stuck in the Country genre for the last couple of days, revealing some great shows from Railroad Earth, Poco, Emmylou, Gram Parsons, NRPS, Flying Burito Brothers and Johnny Cash. Not minded to change it at the moment ….