what i'm reading: maximum security book club

I have an abiding interest in prison librarianship, and try to learn about it wherever I can. Whenever the OLA Superconference features a session on prison libraries, I attend. I'm always pleased to see how popular and well attended these sessions are.

Perhaps that should not surprise. In a sense, prison libraries epitomize librarian values -- the inherent value of reading, the power of self-education, the importance of finding the right reading material, the solace and companionship that reading can offer, the democratizing and liberating power of the library. And perhaps above all, the desire to bring resources to people who are marginalized and under-served.

Whether I'll ever work as a prison librarian or volunteer in a prison library remains to be seen. Prison libraries have been decimated by austerity budgets, and few people advocate for them.

In recent years a few narrative nonfiction books about prison libraries have been published. This is the first of a series of reviews about them. (The series will be very spread out!)

Mikita Brottman's Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men's Prison -- unlike most of the titles in her club's syllabus -- reads lightly and quickly. The reader also learns a bit about literature.

Those are the only positive things I can say about this book.

I don't usually write unfavourable reviews, in acknowledgement of how difficult it is to write a book, and in deference to varying tastes. Every book is not for every reader, and my opinion shouldn't stand in anyone else's way.

Occasionally, though, something must be said.

Brottman ran a book club in a prison in the US state of Maryland. She is not a librarian; she is a scholar and professor of literature. Perhaps this explains my frequent confusion, dismay, incredulity, and sometimes disgust at some of her choices. Librarians are all about matching readers with books. When we run book clubs, the members choose the books -- likely from a list of possible choices, but always with their full and active participation. Brottman came into the prison with a list of titles.

And what a list it was! First Brottman tells the story of the first time she read Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, as a student at Oxford University. She found it indecipherable. Completely unreadable. Only after one of her distinguished professors helped her -- and even then, after several readings -- did she understand and appreciate the book. And yet she chose Heart of Darkness for a group of men with limited reading skills, little reading experience, and no formal education -- and for their first meeting together!

Brottman never explains why she did this. I'm not sure if the reader is meant to laugh with her at her missteps and foibles? I just cringed.

After that disastrous first session, Brottman next assigns Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener. This absolutely boggles my mind.

The men's reactions to their reading continually confounds and frustrates Brottman. She wants to teach literature as she is accustomed, with a deep analysis of language and themes. But the men view the stories and characters in terms of their own experiences. Like many readers, they expect books to be, in a sense, about themselves -- to offer insight or reflection or lessons. To be, as I frequently hear from teen readers, "relatable". But Brottman wants to teach "the text," as literary scholars are so fond of calling it. She fights a losing battle to try to make the men talk about the book in her own purist terms, repeatedly trying to get them to stop talking about their own lives. Only slowly and partially does she adjust her teaching methods to their needs.

Brottman comes off as spectacularly tone-deaf. When the men react to her book choices with either boredom or confusion, she lectures them. She dismisses their points of view, she makes jokes that mock and offend. She makes the men read Lolita and defends the book's central relationship as a love story! The men recognize Humbert Humbert for what he is -- and she tries to talk them out of it! Did this woman come into a men's prison with so little preparation that she doesn't know the prison status of child sexual abusers? Perhaps, because she also breaks a cardinal rule of all prison volunteering: after the book club ends, she continues her relationship with some of the men on the outside.

Before I read this book, I wondered if it would include some exaggerated claims of how the book club transformed lives. Reading can be a transformative experience, but participation in a book club is not going to repair the conditions or reverse the behaviour that gave rise to the men's incarceration.

I needn't have worried. The Maximum Security Book Club is not about prison life, and it's not about incarcerated men. It's not about the relationships that form through a book club, nor the effects of reading. It's about the author -- her thoughts, her reactions, her knowledge. Although Brottman holds up her working-class upbringing like a trophy for the reader to admire, she still comes off as a privileged white saviour looking for a novel experience at someone else's expense. She's slumming.

I wouldn't be surprised to learn that their book club experience turned these men off from reading for the rest of their lives.


Lorne said...

A very, very interesting post, Laura. Thank you. Have you read The Prison Book Club, by Ann Walmsley. Quite a different approach, with some remarkable results.

M@ said...

Wow. I'm glad you posted this. I am often ammazed at books in which the author proudly describes his or her incredible failure or incompetence. What editor took this manuscript and said, "yes, let's invest in this one!"? Unbelievable.

laura k said...

Lorne, I have not, but it's on the list! Also "Running the Books" by Avi Steinberg.

M@, seriously, I know.

M@ said...

(Please excuse spelling - I should not comment on my phone...)

laura k said...

As a writer, I really hate to write a bad review. But as a reader and a librarian, I'm glad I did.

Unknown said...

I look forward to seeing what you think of Steinberg's book. I wasn't impressed, for reasons that sound similar to your comments about this current book. I will track down 'The Prison Bookclub'. Thanks Lorne! And thanks wmtc for an excellent post.

johngoldfine said...

I love a review with some pepper and pop, and I'm both fascinated and horrified by other people's teaching failures. Nothing you wrote seems gratuitous or ad hominem.

impudent strumpet said...

Makes me think of my Grade 9 English teacher in a roundabout sort of way - she had us to Taming of the Shrew as our very first Shakespeare ever in our lives.

laura k said...

Thank you Jane Garner! Are you a librarian? (Just curious)

John, I often enjoy reading bad reviews -- of, say, a restaurant or TV show. But when I read a scathing book review, I always feel bad for the author. Unless the author is a right-winger, then I'm glad.

I would probably entertain wmtc readers more if I wrote more bad reviews, but... nah.

Imp, how bizarre. I wonder what her reasoning was. Maybe she hated Shakespeare and wanted her students to hate him too.

impudent strumpet said...

I don't know what her reasoning was, but her tone and delivery when showing us a video of a live performance suggested that she thought if we just watched this video we'd all instantly see how awesome it was. All that happened is some of the louder and more testosteroney boys thought it was awesome for all the wrong reason, which made me spend the class trying to be invisible rather than learning Shakespeare.

I looked up the teacher after I thought of this, and found she'd been teaching for 10 years before this happened! At the time (and also in retrospect) I took her for younger and less experienced than that - I would have thought an experienced teacher would have started us with something that everyone could appreciate even if they only absorbed it on a superficial level. Our curriculum at the time had five required English classes, each of which included a Shakespearean play. Plenty of time to start with something crowd-pleasing that leaves us feeling "Hey, that was more entertaining and less intimidating that I expected!"

Anyway, this is getting ranty and should probably be its own post in my own blog. tl;dr: Don't do Taming of the Shrew as your students' first Shakespeare, do something like Comedy of Errors.

laura k said...

Sheesh! Thanks for that, Imp. You're usually so concise, it's a treat when you get a bit ranty.

laura k said...

...in comments, that is.

You'd think by now Blogger would let us edit comments, but I guess Blogger is not a priority for Google anymore.

Unknown said...

I am qualified to be a librarian, yes, but currently working as an academic teaching others to be librarians. My PhD is about the experience of using prison libraries, so I have read a fair bit about them and interviewed prisoners about them. I am in Australia.

laura k said...

Very interesting! Thanks for stopping by.