So you’ve finally run out of excuses: the ailing grandmothers, the out-of-town emergencies, the highly contagious illnesses that don’t actually require a doctor’s visit but absolutely prevent you from leaving the house under any and all circumstances. It was bound to happen at some point, right? That thin, impersonal envelope arrives in the mail, and suddenly the next week of your life has just been unceremoniously kidnapped by the high courts. Yes ma’am; you’re going to have to put on your big girl pants, because it’s time (drumroll, please) to serve jury duty.
Now, admittedly, I’m someone who’s never actually been called to jury duty. But plenty of my friends and family have, and when I’m done pointing and laughing at their dismay, I usually let them in on a little secret: I would love to serve jury duty. The United States’ court system fascinates (and horrifies) me, and if I weren't so busy sitting in front of my computer in pajamas all day, writing my little heart out, I would have probably become a public defender. So, there’s really no one better than myself (in my opinion) to get you super-amped up for what you think is going to be the most boring, tedious week of your life.
My first piece of advice, after buying yourself a sassy little A-line dress with a peter pan collar, and a monogramed briefcase, of course, is to fill that briefcase with these 12 books, and prepare to read away until it’s time to shout “not guilty!” (And then start pounding that gavel you also conveniently brought along for yourself.)
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
At the end of 1959, a small town in rural Kansas was shocked by the cold-blooded murders of four of their own: local farmer Herbert Clutter, his wife, and two of their children. In the wake of the crime, investigative journalist Truman Capote traveled to Kansas following the investigation, arrest, and trials of both killers. After interviewing residents, law enforcement, and the killers themselves, Capote reconstructed all that he had witnessed. The result, In Cold Blood, is often considered the first “nonfiction novel” ever published.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt
Jim Williams is the only person in the history of Georgia to be tried four times for the same crime. After he killed Danny Hansford in his home, everyone in Savannah is left asking whether the crime was self-defense or murder. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil tells the story of that crime, and the subsequent legal proceedings, through the eyes of some of the most eccentric and opinionated minds living in the Deep South.
Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing by Ted Conover
When investigative journalist Ted Conover was prevented from observing the American penal system as a reporter, he elevated the term “investigative” to a whole new level, by becoming a prison guard himself. Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing is the account of Conover’s year spent in a New York State maximum-security prison, where sometimes the “bad guys” are bad, and the “good guys” are even worse.
A Place to Stand by Jimmy Santiago Baca
A Place to Stand is the completely spellbinding memoir by writer and poet Jimmy Santiago Baca, telling of the years he spent in a maximum-security prison, bookended by his life before and after incarceration. Illiterate upon his imprisonment of up to 10 years, for dealing drugs, while in prison he learned to read and write, setting the foundation for the utterly gorgeous poet he is today.
Dead Man Walking by Sister Helen Prejean
While on death row, Patrick Sonnier is assigned a spiritual advisor: Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun who goes above and beyond her duty as a prayer partner to not only understand Sonnier as a human being, but also to get to know the families of his victims, and the men assigned to execute him as well. Dead Man Walking is a personal account of the ethical and moral issues of the death penalty, as seen by those experiencing it from many different perspectives.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
If you don’t know the story of To Kill A Mockingbird by now, you really need to get on that. They just don’t make ‘em like Atticus Finch anymore: the Great Depression-era lawyer who defends an innocent black man in the racially charged town of Maycomb, Alabama, and says all sorts of things in public that nobody had ever dared say before. Definitely worthy of the Pulitzer Prize this novel won.
The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
Former litigator Michelle Alexander takes readers behind the faceless statistics of the men who live behind the bars of American’s prison system. The New Jim Crow argues that communities of color — and black men in particular — are specifically targeted for arrest and incarceration, and that the United States is still a long way from the country’s purported “color-blindness.” This book gives the #CrimingWhileWhite hashtag some data to back it up.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is set in a 1950s-era Soviet labor camp, and describes just one day in the life of an ordinary prisoner — in this case, Ivan Denisovich. Ivan, though innocent, was accused of being a spy for the Germans during World War II, and is sentenced to serve 10 years. Although many of the prisoners who surround Ivan are, unlike him, guilty, this novel will make you think about what punishments are really fitting for which crimes.
The Laramie Project by Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project
Although it is a play, The Laramie Project reads like a work of nonfiction prose, about the headline-making murder of Matthew Shepard, in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998. In the wake of the murder, Moisés Kaufman and crew traveled to Laramie to research the case, which had been cited as a hate crime, and brought some groundbreaking attention to hate crime laws (or lack thereof) all over the United States.
Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
Set in Chicago during the 1893 World’s Fair, Devil in the White City tells the haunting story of a real-life serial killer, Dr. H. H. Holmes, who would lure his victims to their deaths in his World’s Fair Hotel, and then sell their skeletons to medical researchers. Spoiler alert: Holmes is finally arrested, for insurance fraud, of all things, but until he is this true-crime story will keep you turning the pages.
The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer
This novel, based on the real-life execution of Gary Gilmore, by the state of Utah, for murder, was at the forefront of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1976 debates over whether or not to reinstate the death penalty. Written from interviews Norman Mailer conducted with friends and family of both Gilmore, and those of his victims, The Executioner’s Song won the Pulitzer Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Award.
On the Yard by Malcolm Braly
The New York Review of Books has credited Malcolm Braly’s novel On the Yard as being “the finest work of literature ever to emerge from a U.S. prison.” Braly wrote the book in secret, while on parole, and published it upon his parole’s expiration. This novel tells the story of two seemingly opposite inmates who share very similar ends: Chilly Willy, who leads the prison’s black market in drugs and sex, and Paul, who is guilt-ridden over the murder of his wife. On the Yard introduces readers to a population of prison inmates as diverse and complicated as those who don’t live behind bars.