Out of Sheer Enthusiasm: The Prison Book Club

the prison book clubI will confess up front that teaching literature in prisons is something I have long been interested in doing – only whenever I start to think I might have enough energy for it, Mr Litlove says no, more forcibly than usual. He says he doesn’t want to come home one night to find a burly ex-con emerging from the shadows, saying in menacing tones, you ain’t treatin’ Litlove right. So when I saw Ann Walmsley’s book, The Prison Book Club, I was extremely curious to read it and enjoy vicariously an experience I’m probably unlikely to have.

And it was one of those books that did exactly what I’d hoped it would do, which meant I was glued to it most of the weekend. Ann Walmsley was invited by her friend, a determined and powerful philanthropist, Carol, to join in with her scheme of starting book clubs in prisons. Ann was intrigued but scared; when she lived in London a few years previous to this invitation, she had been mugged in the private lane running just alongside her house. One man had throttled her whilst the other took her phone and only the sound of the garden gate opening by remote control frightened them off. After this, Ann had suffered from post-traumatic anxiety for some time. Putting herself in the company of violent inmates seemed a terrifying prospect. But her friend, Carol, was someone who never took no for an answer, and Ann was evidently keen for a book project. She took a recorder with her to all the book club sessions and over time, as she grew to know and like the men, offered some of them journals to record their thoughts as they read the books, and spent one-to-one time with them.

Ann’s role is initially to help suggest books the men will enjoy reading. There are not, as you might wonder, that many issues around literacy levels; Carol plunges in with pure, unadulterated literature. But as always, the very question of book choice makes us think about how books work their magic. Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes was a huge hit with the men, who could relate to a story of poverty and slavery. But they equally loved The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, the metaphor of the Occupation having a more powerful resonance with them than, say, The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman, the story of the immensely brave Polish zoo owners who hid Jews in the animals cages before spiriting them out of danger. Equally big hits were The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Essentially, the prisoners enjoyed chewing over a book with profound themes, and had as much empathy as any other set of readers for social problems.

Some of the books they read alongside the Toronto book club that Ann and Carol both belonged to on the outside. On the occasion of Roddy Doyle’s tale of domestic abuse, The Woman Who Walked into Doors, coming up for discussion, the Toronto ladies, gathered in someone’s lovely home, eating pear and apple crumble and drinking a nice wine, were horrified and concerned.

Lillian-Rose asked bluntly who screened these books. If an inmate had engaged in domestic abuse, she said, wouldn’t the book provoke, disturb or even excite them? Ruth said that since Carol and I were not psychologists or therapists, how would we handle it if the material brought out something in a book club member that he hadn’t faced before. But Carol and I explained that the men had managed well with other books about abuse and neglect, like The Glass Castle. In fact, every prison group that had read The Glass Castle had absolutely loved it, Carol said. “Many of them have been through anger management programs and a lot of them have more self-knowledge than just about 95 percent of people I know,” said Carol’.

And in the event, the men have a full, frank discussion with sympathy and insight. Carol’s stated intention with her book club idea was to ‘hoist them [the inmates] into the middle class through reading.’ And Carol never misses an opportunity to bring the discussion around to her favourite point – that an essential part of humanity is looking out for, and looking after, other people. Yet what becomes obvious is that criminals are not necessarily idiots, or hopelessly morally corrupt; the prisoners have plenty of sensible, intelligent things to say about the books they read, not least because they have a fair bit of time to read them, especially when the jail is on lockdown as it often is, because of some outbreak of violence. Not that they don’t have a particular way of expressing things, however. One of the keen members, Dread, explains to some new recruits who are struggling with a book: “The book is not a predator. It’s a prey. You have to go after it. It’s not like a Sidney Sheldon read. Sidney Sheldon books are predators that go after you.” I’ll bet Barthes wished he’d thought of predators and prey rather than lisible and scriptible. But what they get out of the club is the same as anyone who has enjoyed a bookish discussion. “You get a chance to relive the book, but through someone else’s eyes,” says Gaston to Ann. “What makes this book club so interesting is people bring alive the points that you don’t even notice.”

All of which made me ponder long and hard about this strange thing ‘mentality’, what goes on inside each of our heads, and how any of that translates into doing the wrong thing. How stories, a litmus test for our beliefs and anxieties, can be so powerful in one way and so powerless in others. Ann grows very fond of many of the men, and meets with some when they are out on parole. She is surprised and saddened to learn that the inmate with the most writerly sensibility, the keenest insight into the books they are reading and the best self-expression, is the one who fails to flourish in anyway on the outside, and who is quickly rearrested for first degree murder.

I remember reading somewhere (and oh how I wish I could recall where exactly) about this intriguing test. Think of the worst crime (proper act of lawbreaking) that has happened to you. And then think of the worst thing that you have done to someone else. It could be anything – an act of disloyalty, a betrayal, an act of omission, of not doing something that should have been done, a little bit of cheating. For the majority of us, that bad thing we did is much worse than any crime that has happened to us. People are people; we do good things and we do bad things, all of us, every single one. Most habitual criminals come about out of a toxic mix of poverty, injustice and violent backgrounds. But we all have the capacity to transgress and do things we shouldn’t. Literature offers us all a very safe space to consider issues that are just too personal, too threatening, when we relate them to ourselves. Stories are fearless, and they open us up to all the extremes of human behaviour, the best and the worst. The Prison Book Club wisely offers no interpretations, or solutions or answers to the problems encountered in its pages, real or fictional. Ann Walmsley just lays her experience bare for us, and a fascinating one it is, too. I loved this book and will be thinking about its implications for a long time to come.

23 thoughts on “Out of Sheer Enthusiasm: The Prison Book Club

  1. I think that when you are strong again you should look seriously indeed at teaching to prisoners; what humanity these two women show! I too think the description given by “Dread” knocks Barthes words into a cocked hat. Indeed I have done much worse (in a moral sense) to others than I have had done to me as an act of criminality; I rarely throw stones from inside my glasshouse however …

    • It seemed to me that the prisoners suffered most from terribly low self-esteem, and just having two kind women pay attention to them and want to hear what they had to say about a book provided a terrific boost of useful therapy. I can be a bit too zealous about the ability of literature to change lives and open minds, but a prison is just the right sort of situation to exercise its power. I would love to do that. Though I have also thought of volunteering for schools that contain only students who have been too badly bullied to return to state education. They’d be good for literature work, too.

  2. This was already on my list but I’m looking forward to it even more now. Given the recent studies about the way in which fiction fosters empathy in readers it seems an excellent idea to have book groups for prisoners.

    • Ooh can’t wait to hear what you make of it. Ann is always looking out for signs of empathy in the prisoners and the books really do provoke that in them. It’s a very heartening book that way!

  3. Great initiative great stuff! My brother’s wife organises painting workshops for prisoners annually, organising joint exhibitions every year. If you can get past the bureaucratic quagmire it is greatly rewarding. Smacks of enlightened socialism.

    • Wow what a great story! I congratulate your brother’s wife – it does take a lot of effort and determination to get these things started, but the benefit derived from them is huge.

  4. I spotted this last week at the library & picked it up not realising it was set in the Canadian prison system. It is next up on the reading pile.

    As someone who worked in the prison system here in the UK I am wondering what I will make if it all; I have had a few glance throughs & rather enjoyed what I read.

  5. This sounds really good. The prison system in the U.S. (as witnessed by the popular Orange is the New Black — book, not TV version) is so screwy. It’s basically become a big business where so many who need other kinds of help (drug rehab, mental health care, etc.) are thrown, so that society doesn’t have to take care of them on the outside. Not that there aren’t violent criminals in prison who belong there, but there’s nothing being done anymore to rehabilitate any of them in most of our prisons. And then there’s the racism in the system, which I read a lot about when I was a multicultural studies editor.

    There are a lot of lost souls in prison, and I’m sure they, like all of us, can find help through literature, so it’s wonderful to hear about people volunteering to guide them through that discovery. A number of years ago, I read a really interesting book by Wally Lamb (perhaps you read it too? I may have written about it on my old blog) in which he shared his experience of teaching writing in a women’s prison (same one, actually, that the author of Orange is the New Black was in) and the poignant stories they wrote. I’ve been drawn to the idea of helping in prisons ever since but haven’t done anything about it.

    • Emily, how nice to have you visit – hello! I’ve read Wally Lamb before but not the one you mention (will have to look it out!). I confess I know very little about the UK prison system, but my hopes for it aren’t high. I can imagine that it’s difficult enough to get basic facilities covered for the prisoners and that anything more personalised or complicated is a non-starter. In the Prison Book Club, the prison is often on lockdown, meaning that Carol and Ann can’t get in to hold their meetings, and that means some violent incident has taken place, or there have been thefts of materials that could be turned into weapons. It happens a LOT, and given I am generally a softie, I cannot imagine how people exist in that atmosphere. You’d be absolutely brilliant volunteering in prisons, I am quite convinced.

  6. What a thought-provoking post and what a wonderful thing to want to do. Another reason to get yourself strong again, but make sure you are – we don’t want to hear about Mr. Litlove being set upon by anyone!🙂

  7. Oh dear, five minutes ago I didn’t know the book existed but now I’m quite sure I want to read it🙂 It blends in perfectly with another book I have just read in German and one chapter is exactly about that: books in prisons.

    • Buchpost, you have access to some excellent books, I know. It is just as well my German is too ropey now to read in it or else I would be asking you for recommendations and adding to my already monstrous TBR! Would love to know what you think of this one…

  8. I always think working in prisons would be just fascinating, too. Only I’m a hopeless teacher so there’s not much I’d be able to do there, even if I had the opportunity.

    I did your thought experiment, and maybe I’m being horribly self-serving in my thinking, but my seventh-grade betrayal of a dear friend of mine still seems not as bad as the grown-ass men who mugged (& groped, ick) me at gunpoint one time. Right? I mean I am obviously not proud of twelve-year-old me and I think about it all the time what that says about me that I didn’t stick up for my friend, but like — there was no threat of DEATH involved.

    Any case: This book sounds super interesting. Adding to the list.

    • Oh dear I am so sorry; that part of the post must have been horribly offensive to you. The point of the test is that most of us think violent crime more pervasive than it is, but of course, it doesn’t work at all if you’ve been a victim of it. I am very sorry indeed to hear that happened to you.

  9. Sounds like a great read! Bookman and I regularly donate to a local group called The Women’s Prison Book Project. They collect books to give to women in prison and they also hold fund raisers in order to purchase books. They are a great group — no hard cover books accepted though!

  10. Reading the new Atwood satire of for-profit prisons has been making me think about this more, along with a friend of mine who volunteers in a women’s prison near Boston, MA. I should find out more about groups like the one Stefanie mentions, the Women’s Prison Book Project.

  11. I must have missed this last week – what a fascinating piece. I do some volunteer work at the local library, and while we don’t have any links to prisons at the moment, this idea might be of interest to the permanent members of staff. Something for the future, perhaps (or it might be more relevant for other branches in the county). Thanks for such a thought-provoking review, Victoria – I’ll certainly make a note of the book.

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