Monday, December 03, 2007

Fit for solitary confinement

I recently finished reading Taken on Trust, Terry Waite's self-written account of being held hostage by Islamic Jihad for nearly five years in civil-war torn Beirut.

Waite, a hostage negotiator who had experienced success in Libya, Iran, and Lebanon itself, was kidnapped after a meeting with hostage-takers in Beirut in January 1987. For four years, he was kept in solitary confinement and forced to wear a blindfold whenever any of his hostage-takers entered his room. During that time, he was chained to a radiator for 23 hours. For 50 minutes, he was allowed to walk "freely" around his room. The remaining ten minutes were for a single, supervised bathroom visit.

I give you this information because it provides the background for what was, to me, the most interesting part of the book. The descriptions of how he was taken, the ingenious methods his captors used to move him from location to location, his daily diet, and health troubles were all fascinating. But I was absolutely intrigued by his description of what it was like to, alternately, have no reading material at all, and when he did have some, what it was and what it was like to read in solitary confinement.

Have you ever thought about what books you would choose to read (if you could) if you were on a deserted island or, like Mr. Waite, in solitary confinement? I confess I haven't given it much thought - until now.

Mr. Waite describes his schedule after some time in captivity:

"Now that I have books, I can find a little more balance to the day. I plan it. After exercise I will say my prayers, then I will meditate for a while. Afterwards I will allow myself time to read until lunchtime - that should give me four or five uninterrupted hours, providing I have light, of course. [His room had no natural light and the power went out quite often in Beirut.] After lunch I will think about what I have read and then spend an hour or so on my own mental writing. [He claims to have written much of Taken on Trust in his mind while being held hostage.] Then I will say my evening prayers and perhaps do some further reading until it is time to sleep. It sounds good."

His thoughts on reading:

"What would I want to say to [a writer of one of the books he is reading in solitary confinement] if I could meet him today? I would say, keep a space in your mind for the man or woman in prison; the individual who will read your book with the same sort of relish with which a starving peasant seizes a loaf of bread. This is the individual who will penetrate to the heart of your writing. He is your critic, your disciple. He will sit with you for hour after hour, and will hear your own soul speaking through your words. Be aware of this lonely man or woman as you write."

Some of the books Mr. Waite had access to include two random volumes of a multi-volume encyclopedia set (M to Mexico City was one volume; another was earlier in the alphabet), a travel book by Freya Stark, The Brothers Karamazov (but only the first volume. How frustrating!), and unnamed books by William Styron, Dorothy Sayers, and others. He also had a Bible (but in a modern translation, which he lamented since it meant he wouldn't be able to enjoy the richness of the King James language) and, amazingly, a small prayer book that he himself had managed to give to other hostages before he himself was taken.

If I had to choose only a few books, I think they would include the following:
Les Miserables
The Count of Monte Cristo
Anything in a foreign language that I know, but especially a work that I was already familiar with (The Book of Mormon comes to mind)
A world atlas, preferably by DK

When you think about it, you realize that you can't just choose your "favorite" books. It has to be something that is long or wordy to begin with and can withstand multiple readings. The foreign-language books would be especially rewarding in that regard, and I think my reading skills in whatever language it was would be pretty amazing after it was all over.

Surprisingly (or maybe not), there is a lot more I could say on this subject. This book really made me think.

How about your books? What would you choose to take with you if you knew it was the only reading material you'd have for months or even years?

4 comments:

Crissy Bear said...

I like the way you said, "I always wondered what it would be like to be taken hostage in Beruit." For some reason that just was funny to me. If I could only have a few books here is what I'd want.

1)Scriptures, but if I could only have one I think I'd go with the bible. I just can't imagine not having the gospels. Luckily this is just hypothetical.
2) My patho-physio and O'Chem books. If I had all the time in the world no reason not to learn something really well that escaped me the first time.
3) The Witch of Black Bird Pond, my all time favorite book from grade school.
4) A hymn book.

Bridget said...

Ooh, a hymn book. That's a good one.

About your chemistry books, though: This guy was excited that he got the M volume of the encyclopedia because it meant he could about math, but he said it was actually really frustrating because the article kept referring him to other encyclopedia articles that he didn't have access to :).

Shannan said...

dickens is my favorite "classics" writer and if I had hours upon hours of solitary time, that is one of the perfect authors to read since you have the TIME to figure out all the characters in the book.

I always mean to like Jane Austen, but once again, sometimes a little complex for my daily fun reads, so that would force me to appreciate the literature aspect of her work.

It sound cliche to say Bible, but not only would it serve for inspiration, but when you came out of the imprisonment, think of how well you would know your "Good Book".

Crissy Bear said...

My path book was over 600 pages of very tiny text. I never read the whole thing. It would just be nice to do it. As for chemistry if I had all the time in the world I could memorize all the mechanism I didn't memorize the first time. Unlike the encyclopedia those books are pretty complete. I did think about that though. At first I was like oh how lucky he was to have an encyclopedia but then I realized really it would just be frustrating to only have a paragraph on each subject. What I'd really want is the internet. Can you imagine not having it...but I guess when you are a hostage internet access is probably not ideal for your captors.

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