Mark Twain is credited with declaring, “A classic is something that everybody wants to have read, and nobody wants to read.” Well, vanity and literary pretensions were my starting points and prompted me to assemble (initially) a list of pretty highfalutin' works. Here's a list of books I considered – including a handful that actually made the cut.
"Papillon": Henri Charrière’s mostly autobiographical account of injustice, indignity, and escape could not be passed off as fiction. While the setting and circumstances (the French penal colonies of Guiana – most notably Devil’s Island), along with the looming guillotine, would make US incarcerations seem posh, the book’s extensive descriptions of escape plans and the many escape attempts were not the “escapism” I could advocate to any DOC. Furthermore, I would have trouble confidently pronouncing the author’s name.
"In Cold Blood": The two cold-blooded murderers got what they deserved, didn’t they? But, masterfully, Truman Capote managed (with art and artifice) to perform what one astute critic has called “alchemy” in mixing “untruth” with truth. For some, Capote was a storyteller who masqueraded as a reporter. I didn’t want to have to look into and evaluate claims of inaccuracy, misportrayal, and misquotation.
"The Executioner’s Song": Norman Mailer wrote so powerfully that some find the murderer Gary Gilmore “heroic” for insisting that his execution be carried out without a protracting series of appeals and lawyering delays. Okay, but what bothered me was Mailer’s role in hyping "In the Belly of the Beast" and obtaining parole for the book’s author, convicted killer Jack Henry Abbott – who, six weeks after his release, committed another murder. No go.