Freedom Reads team member James Washington reads Dudley Randall's The Black Poets at a Freedom Library opening in Elayn Hunt Correctional Center in Louisiana. (Photo: Cristoforo Magliozzi (MASS Design))

Why Reading Matters

Books are essential when you want to imagine a new life for yourself.

In one women’s prison we visited, when we walked into the cellblock the only book we could see was the one that propped up a much needed fan.

One of the women, noticing the beautiful bookcases that had become a part of her day, delayed leaving for work. Maria lingered over the pile of Spanish books she had collected, deciding which to read first. “That’s me,” she joked when she pulled out Erika Sánchez's I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. Because she struggled to read in English, she told us that she would ask another woman in the cellblock to read it aloud to her. She craved the books in Spanish that she read easily and put a copy of La Hija Unica by Guadalupe Nettel in her cell. “All I want is to stay with the Library.”

Reading is the last line of defense between the Wild West and you. When you open a book, you’re putting up a barrier between what the world thinks of you and who you really are. I can’t emphasize it enough: If you read, you are moving on the path toward true freedom. It doesn’t matter where you are.

James McBride, National Book Award-Winning Novelist and Freedom Reads Advisory Board Member

The pay-off from reading is immeasurable. Reading provides comfort and company; and the characters we are introduced to make us laugh or cry or shake our heads and often linger with us even after the book is closed. Grant Wiggins, Bigger Thomas, Marguerite Johnson, Ras the Exhorter, Úrsula Iguarán, and so many others help us notice things in the world we didn’t before.

Days after we’d opened up Freedom Libraries at a California women’s prison, we received this note:

Today, I was filled with excitement, curiosity, and deep gratitude when a Freedom Reads library was delivered to our housing unit…I felt so excited picking up the titles, reading the back and feeling the overwhelm being in the company of so many good books. At one point, in our mutual excitement, I locked eyes with a woman I had a conflict with and after a pause, she asked me how I was doing. Just like that, weeks of resentment and animosity toward this person evaporated over a shelf of books…

Nicole, Freedom Library Patron at Central California Women's Facility

Literacy is freedom. We leave the worlds that we are in —whether we are prisoners in them literally or not; whether we feel imprisoned in them; whether our souls are somehow imprisoned in them — and we enter other worlds. We're suddenly in community with the characters in a book, and with the writer of the book....We read to know that we're not alone, and in that is a freedom.

Miriam Toews, Award-Winning Author

I’ve walked into prisons in Colorado and Illinois and Louisiana and Maine and Maryland and Massachusetts where I would stand before men who’ve known decades in prisons and perform. I walk into prisons and reveal to those inside the lineage of poets and writers that kept me afloat and gave me a sense of purpose. In Gabrielle Zevin’s novel, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, she writes, ‘We read to know we are not alone, we read because we are alone, we read and we are not alone.’ This is why I continue to show up, both so that those inside feel less alone, and so that I, too, feel less alone.

Reginald Dwayne Betts, Award-Winning Poet and Freedom Reads Founder & CEO