(This appeared as my newspaper column, “Notes From My Knapsack” in the Granville (OH) Sentinel 4-23-09, just before Ms. Saberi was convicted and sentenced, and word came out of her planned hunger strike pending an appeal in the Iranian court system. Please keep her in your prayers! No word in subsequent coverage about whether she got her books, but i’m praying for that, too.)

Roxana Saberi is a freelance reporter whose work has been on NPR along with other national venues.

Her profile may have gotten a small boost from being Miss North Dakota over a decade ago, and her ethnic background with Iranian parents led her to try to cover the story of women’s lives in Iran from the inside.

If you’ve heard her story, it’s likely because she’s been arrested by the Iranian government on suspicion of espionage; which friends, family, and most recent employers all agree is balderdash. Sharing accounts of how women have to live in the Islamic Republic of Iran may be as worrisome to authorities there as the possibility of spies checking out their atomic program, since neither issue gains them much favor around the world.

What caught my attention about Ms. Saberi’s story is a recent development, when her parents traveled to Iran and finally got the chance to visit her in prison. They asked her what they could bring her, and she asked for books.

Specifically, she requested Plutarch’s “Lives,” a biography of Gandhi, and a French dictionary, since many Iranians speak that language (odd quirks of colonial history pop up across the Middle East – lots of older Iraqis speak German, especially if they worked on the railroads).

Still no word (as of this writing) about whether she will be allowed these books in her cell, but it set me to thinking “what books would I ask for if I had a long undefined stretch ahead of me?”

For myriad reasons, I’d ask for a Bible, ideally with the Apocrypha (extra books, y’know), but it isn’t clear whether that would be allowed in any case, just as they are entirely and shamefully illegal in Saudi Arabia.

Beyond that Book full of books, what else would I request? If I could only have, say, five other books, what would I pick? “Tristram Shandy” would top my list, and then . . . this gets hard! They would have to hold up under re-reading, not just be long, although length would have to be a criterion.

Herodotus’ “The Histories,” Dickens’ “David Copperfield,” “PrairyErth” by William Least Heat-Moon, where he does for Chase County, Kansas what I hope to do for Licking County someday, and then I think “Walden” by Henry David Thoreau.

When Shannon Lucid was up on the Russian “Mir” Space Station in 1996, and the internet was new, there was an interactive feature on a NASA website that allowed you to click through a series of pictures showing life during her then-record-setting nearly 200 days in space.

In one shot, within a mesh bag near her berth, I could make out the distinctive cover design of the Penguin Classics edition of “Walden” and I thought “Brilliant! The perfect book to take on such a trip.” When the Mir was “de-orbited” in 2001, I wondered, as we saw the footage of the burning hulk slash into the South Pacific on TV, did anyone bring that copy of Walden back home?

Having said all that, I wonder if poetry might not be a better choice for re-reading: a volume of Shakespeare’s plays (his birthday today!) and a collection each from Frost, Maxine Kumin, Jaroslav Seifert, and Billy Collins. What five books would you pick, in a prison or for a season in space? It’s an interesting thought experiment.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; toss him a list of books at knapsack77@gmail.com or on Twitter at “Knapsack.”

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