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Why Are We So Fascinated by What Gitmo Prisoners Are Reading?

The latest controversy over the American prison at Guantánamo Bay stems from an improbable source: the wildly popular erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey -- and specifically whether it has become a bestseller of sorts among detainees at the facility.

First, some background. In July, Rep. Jim Moran, a Virginia Democrat, returned from a trip to Guantánamo and claimed that U.S. military officials had told him that prisoners couldn't get enough of the book. "Rather than the Quran, the book that is requested most by the [high-value detainees] is Fifty Shades of Grey." Moran told the Huffington Post. "I guess there's not much going on, these guys are going nowhere, so what the hell." About a week later, Moran told the Miami Herald that he had disclosed the detainees' favorite reading material because he hoped to make their true nature known to their followers. The prisoners, Moran argued, are "not exactly holy warriors. Just the opposite. These people are phonies."

This week, however, the lawyer for one high-value Gitmo detainee, Ammar al-Baluchi, challenged that assertion, claiming that the inmate's guards gave him the book, possibly as a practical joke. According to the lawyer, Baluchi didn't find it all too interesting.  

The dust-up over E.L. James' mega-seller is but the latest example of what has become a strange fascination with Guantánamo inmates' reading material. The island prison maintains a fairly well-stocked library with some 18,000 books, and the detainees, most of whom have now been there for over a decade, have access to a range of both Arabic-language and Western books. Among the titles: the Harry Potter books, David Copperfield, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, News of a Kidnapping, and something called The Anxiety and Phobia Workbook (Fourth Edition). If you want to know more, New York Times reporter Charlie Savage maintains a Tumblr that documents the titles available.

This little library has become something of a cult sensation, and the battles over what books are made available to the inmates has served as a strange soundtrack to the glacial legal proceedings on the island. Shaker Amer, one Guantánamo inmate, apparently loved 1984 and felt that the book provided a perfect description of the psychological conditions at the prison. But there are limits to U.S. officials' willingness to tolerate Amer's taste for prison lit, and he reportedly never received his copy of Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago, which was sent to him by his legal team. Prison officials have broad latitude when it comes to the books they can reject, but the decision to disappear a copy of Solzhenitsyn's masterpiece is full of irony. The book documents the horrendous conditions of the Soviet-era prison system and provides a stark portrayal of the broken bodies and minds that populate its cells. The "archipelago" of the title refers to the way prison colonies dotted the Soviet Union just as islands dot an archipelago system as isolated worlds unto themselves.

So what explains our sustained interest in Gitmo reading lists? The snippets we pick up about popular books certainly carry symbolic and political meaning, as Moran's effort to discredit the detainees with his Fifty Shades of Grey revelation suggests. On the other side of the political spectrum, John Grisham made a huge splash earlier this month with a New York Times op-ed that decried conditions at the prison while at the same time lambasting its officials for denying prisoners access to his novels. (They've since been made available.)

Books also have the ability to humanize and establish connections between people. Browsing through the GitmoBooks Tumblr, you might realize, suddenly, that you and a detainee have something in common -- you both read and loved Harry Potter. Derek Attig, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Illinois, has written about this phenomenon on his blog:

A main point of the Guantánamo system-of its location outside the continental United States in Cuba, of the separate legal system at work there, of the official rhetoric that has surrounded the detention facility since its inception-has been to make it seem as though Americans have nothing in common with the men being held within it.

But books connect. Not as strongly as some theorize-reading the same book as someone else doesn't make you inexorably and totally connected-but shared experience of a cultural artifact is, indeed, a powerful thing. Scrolling through photos of Danielle Steel novels, of Narnia books, of Harry Potter and 300 Orchids: Species, Hybrids, and Varieties in Cultivation, I'm struck by the intense familiarity of these shelves that I've never seen, in a place I've never been, used by people that I do not know or, by design, know much about.

So, if Baluchi isn't really into Fifty Shades of Grey, what does he read? According to his lawyer, he prefers magazines -- particularly the Economist and Wired.You have to wonder how he felt about Wired's big piece on DIY drones.

CHANTAL VALERY/AFP/Getty Images

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