“Orange is the New Black” (OITNB) premiered on Netflix on July 13 and I, like many others, settled down with a family-size bag of Sun Chips to unapologetically binge-watch the entire season that very same Saturday. It struck me how many people on the show are seen doing something that’s unusual for television: reading books. Jenji Kohan, the creator of Weeds, adapted OITNB for the very small screen from the real-life memoirs of Piper Kerman via her book Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison. Kerman, a self-described nice blonde lady with a Seven Sisters degree (Kerman graduated Smith in ’92), published her memoir in 2010 after serving 13 months in Danbury prison for smuggling drug money.
Kerman and her husband, Larry Smith, are both writers with strong literary backgrounds and one of Kerman’s goals while she was in prison was to read through her Amazon Wish List (which is still up if you want to check it out). Books were a huge part of Kerman’s experience in federal prison. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times Kerman said:
“They [books] were complete lifelines. They were the only legitimate forms of escape. I actually avoided the TV rooms because they’ll suck you into some weird places. There was no prison library in Danbury. We just had informal bookshelves, but it’s very interesting what books are popular. Serial romances and mysteries, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton. There’s the whole genre of street fiction—Dutch, The Coldest Winter Ever. Ann Patchett is big.
Random Family was hugely popular at Danbury. There were these dog-eared copies that kept getting passed around. There were some women who were reading, and they were like, ‘This is my life,’ and there were other women who were from middle-class backgrounds who were like, ‘This book is explaining where we are.’”
In prisons in the United States, books and libraries are lifelines for inmates. The Prison Book Program blog is full of accounts from inmates describing how important books are to their lives and journalist Erwin James of The Guardian wrote a good reflection on his personal experience with literature in prison in response to reports claiming that prisoners in Guantánamo Bay are obsessed with Fifty Shades of Grey. According to the Department of Justice, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.” Despite that public stance, actually getting books to inmates is complicated and difficult and prisons broadly censor what inmates are able to read.
In OITNB, the showrunners added a library to their prison and it certainly makes for some great, ridiculously quotable moments, many courtesy of Taystee (Danielle Brooks).
But aside from the library itself, books are visible in a majority of scenes in the show. In fact, there are some fans dedicated to cataloguing the books hidden in the show through avenues like the Tumblr The Books of Orange is the New Black, which hails Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) as the new Rory Gilmore (which seems sacrilegious to me, but I digress). The books visible in the show range from YA books like Freshman Year & Other Unnatural Disasters by Meredith Zeitlin, which is being read by the formidable Red, to 50 Shades of Grey by E.L. James, to Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, which Piper describes as “almost good.”
Part of what makes the inclusion of these literary Easter eggs so noteworthy is the variety of readers. In fact, there are few to none heavy readers on current popular television other than intentionally nerdy characters à la The Big Bang Theory. But on OITNB, there is no stereotypical “nerd” character with the glasses and the book squirreled away in the background. Instead, many characters are depicted reading a book, discussing a book, or referencing a book at different parts in the show. Daya (Dascha Polanco) is a manga fan, Piper recommends Nicholson Baker to Tricia (Madeline Brewer) as something sexy to read (cough), one of the security guards is reading Night Shift by Stephen King, and Lorna (Yael Stone) is a magazine queen.
There are cliques in prison, racial tensions, violence and straight-up fights, but at the end of it all, these books provide connections.