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Collecting Rare Books and First Editions - Penned in Prison for The Private Library

Collecting Rare Books and First Editions - Penned in Prison for The Private Library

By L.D. Mitchell

Here's an interesting idea for a private library: collect nothing but titles that have been penned by prisoners.

If you think such a book collection might contain mostly accounts of prison life, think again ... some of the world's greatest, as well as some of the most influential, literature ever written was penned by prisoners.

Among such titles are  Fernand Braudel's magisterial  The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (the first draft of which was written without access to books or notes  while Braudel was a German prisoner-of-war in World War II);  Cervantes'  Don Quixote  (begun while the author was locked up in debtor's prison);  Ezra Pound's  Pisan Cantos (written while the author was imprisoned by Italian partisans during World  War II); and  Boethius'  Consolation of Philosophy (written while the author was under arrest on false charges of treason).
A focus on such books would net you novels such as  Jean Genet's  Our Lady of the Flowers  (written while Genet was imprisoned for theft),  John Cleland's  Fanny Hill: or, Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure  (another product of debtor's prison) and the Marquis de Sade's  Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue  (the notorious libertine, famed more for his subject matter than the quality of his writing, was imprisoned in the  Bastille  when he wrote the first draft).   But such a focus also would net you what are perhaps the most famous poetic lines ever penned in prison:

Stone walls do not a prison make;
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage

("To Althea, from Prison" by Richard Lovelace)
Collecting Rare Books and First Editions - Penned in Prison for The Private Library

That compilation of all things Arthurian, Le Morte d'Arthur, was supposedly penned while Sir Thomas Malory was imprisoned for theft, thuggery and (possibly) rape.  Arguably the greatest of all medieval Western European travel accounts, The Travels of Marco Polo, was dictated to a scribe while the famed traveler was a prisoner of war in Genoa.

A private library built around books penned by prisoners might see the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s  Why We Can't Wait (which includes the full text of King's Letter from Birmingham City Jail) next to Dietrich Bonhoeffer's  Letters and Papers from Prison (written while the distinguished theologian was imprisoned for plotting to assassinate Hitler) next to Antonio Gramsci's Selections from the Prison Notebooks (the famous Marxist theorist, imprisoned by Italian Fascists during World War II, died six days after his release from captivity).

Of course, all this is but the tip of a very large literary iceberg.  So much has been published by imprisoned authors that one could easily specialize if one so desired.  

Instead of focusing on great or influential literature penned by prisoners, you might choose instead to focus on memoirs of prison life.  So-called Death Row biographies, written by prisoners awaiting a visit from the Grim Reaper (or written by folks trying to get these prisoners released, or by those who work with such prisoners), suggest one possible area of specialization.

Another possible area of specialization is memoirs of life spent in foreign prisons.

Something to collect next time you think you are having a really bad day....

For many years L.D. Mitchell's blog The Private Library showed collectors that it is possible to build a collection without the benefit of much money. He published numerous articles on every imaginable subject of book collecting, he wrote about the most beautiful, the most important, the most common, the most attractive, the most unusual, the most interesting, the most extraordinary, the most amazing ... books one could read, buy, collect and simply enjoy. The Private Library has become an irreplaceable resource for all booklovers. Since April 2012, it is a static archive. L. D. Mitchell will no longer post new original content. ILAB is very grateful that he has given permission to publish some of his best articles and collecting tips from The Private Library on the ILAB website. Thank you very much, L.D.

Published since 03 Jun 2012