From Boethius to Bonhoeffer, many authors have written their most famous books in prison. In rare individuals down the ages, the predicament of incarceration seems to have unleashed great creativity. Some of the results are prodigious works of imagination: Don Quixote transformed European literature; The Prince revolutionized political thought. But there is also Mein Kampf, the work that crystallized the evil fantasies of a monster and poisoned the minds of a generation of Germans.
Conrad Black’s Flight of the Eagle is also largely the product of imprisonment. As a feat of historiographical memory, it does not quite compare with Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World or Fernand Braudel’s The Mediterranean. While these historians were not entirely denied books (respectively, in the Tower of London and a Nazi prison camp), Black had access to the Internet in the two Florida correctional facilities where he was held between 2007 and 2012, including a period from 2010 to 2011 when he was released on bail pending his appeal to the Supreme Court. Yet unlike so many academic histories, every page of this book has the authentic touch of a historian who knows countless facts and figures by heart. When he mentions a warship, for example, you can be sure that he would be able to reel off all her vital statistics on demand.