I 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.