The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men's Prison by Mikita Brottman
"I’m a quiet, private, law-abiding type with no criminal record"
And so begins this unusual story. THE MAXIMUM SECURITY BOOK CLUB meets in a forlorn, sad place. At this book club, there are unusual protocols. You don't just knock at the front door, pour yourself some java, then plow into Dickens.
No, at THIS book club, you get a "full-body pat down," then you exchange your driver's license for a pink clip-on visitor’s badge. (I'm pretty sure I never got a "full-body pat down" at any book club I've attended.)
I was delighted to see that the author included one of my favorite plays--Macbeth. The small group of inmates did indeed fall for this tale of murder and intrigue. Hmmm--Perhaps because some of them WERE murderers! "I realized that although I’d read Macbeth many times in many places with lots of different kinds of students, I’d never read it with people who knew what it felt like to commit murder."
The book club members could give one pause--especially, "Day-Day," who frightened the author: "To be honest, I’d found him slightly scary. He had tattoos all over his body: flames climbed his legs; stars dotted his arms; his knuckles spelled out the words “God’s Gift”; and an ornate letter h was etched between his eyes."
Although THE MAXIMUM SECURITY BOOK CLUB is serious in tone, there are a few light moments. Whilst the book club reads Shakespeare and reads about Kafka's boy-turned-bug, they sometimes hear sounds next door. "The room was unusually quiet and tense as the scene unfolded, the silence outside disturbed only by the occasional raised voices and laughter coming from the classroom next door, where a group was studying The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren."
Of course! In one room, Shakespeare and Kafka; in another Rick Warren.
Another book on the reading list was Kafka's curious little book, THE METAMORPHOSIS. Of course--Kafka and the story of the boy who found he had turned into a bug. This should cheer up the inmates! (After that, maybe try Kafka's CASTLE?) Well, the inmates didn't know much about this story: "A couple of the men vaguely remembered having read The Metamorphosis before, in a philosophy class; but apart from the fact that a guy turned into a bug, they recalled nothing about it."
Surprisingly (at least to me), the inmates identified with Kafka and the bug. One member, Vincent, admits, “It wasn’t till after I’d been in prison for a year or so that I woke up one day, looked around my cell, and I realized, ‘I’m not a person anymore. I’m a parasite.’”
Warning: THE MAXIMUM SECURITY BOOK CLUB doesn't have a really cheerful ending. Meeting a few released inmates later, the author realizes that back in the real world, daily affairs trump literature: "Once back amidst the practical concerns of daily life, neither had the slightest interest in reading or talking about books." She saw that her influence was only for a season--alas, they weren't really becoming fans of literature: "I was not turning them into readers. They were just men who attended the prison book club...On the inside, I’d loved those men. But on the outside, I’d lost them. Because literature was all I had."
All in all, I thought this book was an interesting, if not happy read. Okay, literature was "all she had." Nevertheless, THE MAXIMUM SECURITY BOOK CLUB was a noble, decent thing--at least for a season.