07.21.10

Lindsay Lohan's Jailhouse Reading List

The actress went behind bars yesterday but what will she doing with all her free time? Former prison librarian Avi Steinberg humbly offers his list of what she should read.

In happier times, Lindsay Lohan had real friends. When legendary director Robert Altman promoted the nineteen-year-old Lohan from the Disney ranks and cast her in A Prairie Home Companion, among a first-rate dramatic ensemble, Lohan had finally arrived. In Meryl Streep, her on-screen mother, she even had a real mentor. During a joint interview with W, Lohan confessed that she often sought Streep’s guidance.

“I’ve become such an indecisive person,” Lohan said, “to the point where [in a restaurant] I order water, regular soda, tea and a drink. I never know what I’m feeling like, and I want to get everything because I’m so used to being so many different people.”

Piper Kerman: Lindsay’s Jail Life Everybody knows what happened next, what happened when Lohan “wanted to get everything.” Now, as she sits in her prison cell, this basic ability to make choices is gone. She has virtually no will and no privacy. There are precious few things still in her control. Now is the time for her to be that decisive person—especially in those small things, she must choose wisely.

This starts with her choice in books. In prison, reading is not a frivolous activity, nor is it merely about passing the time—trust me, I was a prison librarian for several years! This is especially true in solitary confinement, which appears to be Lohan’s fate. Books may be the closest thing she’ll have to friends; reading the closest approximation to privacy. For many in prison, books are the only way to make sense of the soul-crushing boredom and brutality of the place—and more importantly, of the immense challenges one will face upon release. Lohan would be wise to avoid the path of Mike Tyson, who exaggerated his prison reading prowess in order to impress interviewers—or worse, the pouty example of Paris Hilton, who turned books into kitsch for her post-prison recovery PR campaign. Let us hope we don’t see a photo of Lohan, à la Hilton, gazing sagely over reading glasses—really, reading glasses?—at a copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War (which, incidentally, is a very popular book in prison).

Lohan is far from perfect, but she deserves a bit more credit than Paris Hilton. We know that she’s already set as far as self-help books. Before she surrendered to the court, she was spotted reading Toxic Friends: The Antidote for Women Stuck in Complicated Friendships. So I hereby offer, in no particular order, a few totally non-toxic author friends—some living, some not—that will serve her well while she serves her time.

The Poems and Letters of Emily Dickinson

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Emily Dickinson is nothing at all like Lohan, which is precisely why Lohan should get to know her. I imagine she’ll find some unexpected resonances.

Because I could not stop for Death/He kindly stopped for me.

Here is a perfect, Twitter-length, poem for Lohan to reflect upon. This witty verse seems a fairly accurate summary of her path to prison. Prison, after all, is a form of death.

Although Dickinson may not have lived in an actual prison cell—nor was she necessarily as reclusive as people imagine—she certainly was a poet of small rooms. This aspect of her writing was appreciated by the prison inmates in the classes I taught; Dickinson’s books never stayed long on the shelf of the prison library. Dickinson can create an entire universe with the spare items in her bedroom. She makes looking out of the window into a fine art. And mostly, she teaches one how to be alone. Lohan is a notoriously desperate seeker of company—she reportedly cajoles friends into long, inconvenient plane rides because she can barely stand a moment without a friend. She must now learn how to be alone. Well, not completely alone. She has Dickinson as her guide.

The Book of Jonah

No prison reading list would be complete without some mention of the Bible. The Bible, of course, can be a rather serious and possibly painful undertaking. The good news is that the Good Book is not actually a book but a collection of many books. A reader is best served to pick just one, preferably a short one and a weird one. The Book of Jonah fits the bill. Jonah was the prophet who tried to run away from his job and ended up bringing a storm onto his shipmates and, feeling bad, tossing himself overboard in order to save them. God then takes pity on Jonah, and sends a large fish to swallow him up. According to an inmate who visited my prison library, this makes for great prison reading. I had mentioned to this inmate that his sentence wasn’t that long. (I was trying to be friendly.) The inmate replied to me, “Jonah did only three days inside the belly of that fish…but just imagine three days inside of a fish!” Lohan already knows that there’s no such thing as a short sentence. But she might not know that the beast is also what saves her.

Lit
By Mary Karr

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On her Twitter page, Lohan refers to herself as “a writer.” She has been working on a memoir for over a year now. What type of writer is she? It’s unlikely that she herself has the answer to this question. She will discover some hints in the writings of others. If she wishes to do something more than a celebrity memoir and not fall into the traps of the hard-luck memoir, she should acquaint herself with some of the best writers working today. Mary Karr’s subjects—addiction, a circus-like upbringing, hard-partying friends—will undoubtedly echo with Lohan. But it’s her style that is unique, her blend of humor and bracing honesty, the refusal to lay the blame on others, the attempt to use stories to empathize with her foes and not to settle scores or to merely absolve herself—these are the authorial attributes that Karr can teach Lohan, the writer. Perhaps reading Karr will make Lohan understand that a person is rarely either a victim or a perpetrator, but very often both. I’ve seen prison inmates gain this precise insight from reading Karr. In fact, I’ve gained it from their speaking about Karr.

Super Sad True Love Story
By Gary Shytengart

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We live in a world where a grainy YouTube clip of Lindsay Lohan shopping for books draws a bigger audience than Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, this year’s National Book Award Winner. Lohan’s personal life seems frightening close to the consumerist dystopia imagined in Gary Shteyngart’s new novel, Super Sad True Love Story. In this painfully funny satire, set in the not-too-distant future, the word “Media” has come to replace “cool,” as in, “that guy is so Media.” Often these words are spoken by Eunice Park, a clever 24-year-old woman who communicates in a constant flow of hip abbreviations, whose beauty belies deep family pain, and who is described as having (literally) “majored in Images, with a minor in Assertiveness.” There is, in short, a good deal of Lindsay in Eunice. If Lohan wants to come to grips with the culture that has created her, and which she has helped create, she should read this book in the quiet of her cell. In other words, before she’s thrust back out into the noise and the cameras.

There are also some books Lohan should not read. She shouldn’t read Sylvia Plath, for example. After doing a photo shoot in which Lohan posed as Marilyn Monroe, one of her heroes, she may be tempted to read, assuming she can get an advance galley, the forthcoming Fragments, a collection of Marilyn’s personal writings, letters, poems. This is going to be an interesting book, no doubt. With the right perspective, it may even be helpful to Ms. Lohan. But it’s worth skipping. Any time she feels the impulse to read about Marilyn, my advice is this: Take out a prison-issue bendy pen and write an old-fashioned letter to Meryl Streep. Whatever reply she gets back will be worth hundreds of books.

Plus: Check out Book Beast for more news on hot titles and authors and excerpts from the latest books.

Avi Steinberg was born in Jerusalem and raised in Cleveland and Boston. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe, the New York Review of Books, Salon, and other publications. His forthcoming book, Running the Books is out in October.