Advance praise for The Maximum Security Book Club:
“The degree to which literature both can be and can’t be a bridge between sensibilities is so carefully examined in this swiftly and sensitively written book. I’m left thinking we should all strive to build book clubs with people whose days and life histories are quite different from our own, rather than discussing books mainly with our friends. Until then, there’s Mikita Brottman’s wonderfully witty and deeply honest report from just that sort of space.”
~ Sheila Heti, author of How Should a Person Be?
“Unlike the typical book-about-reading-books, The Maximum Security Book Club steers clear of facile sentimentality. There is no transformation or redemption in Brottman’s story, only honest moments of encounter—between the author and her students, between the students and one another, between each man and himself—made possible by the act of reading literature. Brotman gives us a candid, unillusioned account of her work behind bars. A brave and admirable book about a brave and admirable project.”
~ William Deresiewicz, author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite
“One of the best books about teaching I’ve ever read, The Maximum Security Book Club is not only lively and engaging from the first page to the last, but dazzles by virtue of its honesty, sympathy and humanity.”
~ Phillip Lopate, author of To Show and To Tell and Portrait Inside my Head
“Take nine convicted felons confined for the long haul at a maximum security men’s prison. Add a well-meaning literary scholar armed only with cheap reprints of challenging books by writers from Conrad to Kafka. The resulting dynamic is the subject of Mikita Brottman’s fascinating and unvarnished book about criminals as rough-hewn literary critics. I tore through The Maximum Security Book Club, curious to read the answers to the questions Brottman asks herself: Can literature illuminate, and perhaps even change, the lives of those warehoused over the long haul at America’s penal institutions? Can shared reactions to classic books empower those whom society has rendered powerless? What is the value of literature and language, and what are its limitations?”
~ Wally Lamb, author of She’s Come Undone and I Know This Much is True
“The prisoners are real. The fiction classics they read and discuss are real. Honest, engaging, surprising, and often unsettling, The Maximum Security Book Club beautifully captures the banal insanity of prison life in America while exploring the power of literature to transform, reform, and illuminate.”
~Kim Wozencraft, author of Rush and The Devil’s Backbone
On a sabbatical from teaching literature to undergraduates, and wanting to educate a different kind of student, Mikita Brottman starts a book club with a group of convicts from the Jessup Correctional Institution in Maryland. She assigns them ten dark, challenging classics—including Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Poe’s ‘The Black Cat,’ and Nabokov’s Lolita—books that don’t flinch from evoking the isolation of the human struggle, the pain of conflict, and the cost of transgression. Although Brottman is already familiar with these works, the convicts open them up in completely new ways. Their discussions may “only” be about literature, but for the prisoners, everything is at stake.
While Mikita Brottman does not gloss over the serious crimes for which these prisoners have been incarcerated, she introduces readers to the deeply flawed yet surprisingly compelling flesh-and-blood men she got to know, from the enthusiastic Steven to the wiry tattoo-covered Day-Day; from Donald, a laconic cynic, to the rambunctious and easy-going Turk. These men’s voices—by turns dismal, hilarious, heartbreaking, and nuanced—leap off the page.
Gradually, the inmates open up about their lives and families, their disastrous choices, their guilt and loss. Brottman also discovers that life in prison, while monotonous, is never without incident. The book club members struggle with their assigned reading through solitary confinement; on lockdown; in between factory shifts; in the hospital; and in the middle of the chaos of blasting televisions, incessant chatter and the constant banging of metal doors.
Though The Maximum Security Book Club never loses sight of the moral issues raised by the selected reading, it refuses to back away from the unexpected insights offered by the company of these complex, difficult men. A compelling, thoughtful analysis of literature—and prison life—like nothing you’ve ever read before.
“Developing a drug addiction and turning to burglary to feed the habit rarely prepares a man for serious literature. But such is the improbable preparation for literary study that Brottman repeatedly finds during the two years that she brings together nine male convicts in Maryland’s Jessup Correctional Institution, so forging an unlikely circle of committed readers. Only in this setting would the violent death of Marlow’s helmsman in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness trigger an aging convict’s recollection of how he once watched in helpless horror as a fellow prisoner was stabbed to death right before his eyes. And only here would the curious passivity of the title character of Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” look like a self-imposed lockdown to a convicted armed robber. But readers see more than how criminals respond to literary masterpieces. They also see how the author realigns her own college professor thinking about books she sees anew through the eyes of her tough-minded students. Great literature reassessed in a gritty world far removed from academe’s ivory towers.”
Compassionate account of running a literary reading group among convicts at Maryland’s Jessup maximum security prison.
Psychoanalyst and author Brottman (Humanistic Studies/Maryland Institute Coll. of Art; The Great Grisby: Two Thousand Years of Literary, Royal, Philosophical, and Artistic Dog Lovers and Their Exceptional Animals, 2014, etc.) hypothesizes that her own hardscrabble British childhood left her able to relate to criminal outcasts. “I’ve long been preoccupied with the lives of people generally considered unworthy of sympathy,” she writes. Beginning as a volunteer during her sabbatical, she’s kept the reading group going for over three years, despite her concerns that “the compulsion that draws me to these men is less an allegiance than…a form of survivor’s guilt.” Brottman argues that even dark literary works can salve the desperation of a long prison sentence, and she captures the camaraderie created within the group. Each chapter focuses on the group’s reactions to a particular work, while she develops the inmates’ personal stories in the context of prison’s rigors. Her perspective on her subjects becomes disarming, although several have committed murder and others struggle with mental illness. Brottman’s literary selections tend to be bleak and difficult: she began with Heart of Darkness and “Bartleby, the Scrivener” and then moved on to transgressive work by Charles Bukowski and William Burroughs. “To them,” she writes, “as to [Bukowski stand-in] Henry Chinaski, brutality was a fact of nature.” The book group remains a sought-after activity. The author claims that almost “no one dropped out unless they were released or transferred,” even as funding for such programs has diminished. Brottman’s own literary discussion is thoughtful, but the main appeal is the developing bond with her allegedly unsalvageable students, whose warmth and perceptiveness constantly surprise her. As one observes regarding Poe’s “The Black Cat,” “they bury us alive without thinking twice about it.”
Will not appeal to hard-core law-and-order types, but others will find this a brave and empathetic story of how literature brings light into shadows.
While on sabbatical from teaching, Brottman (literature, Maryland Inst. Coll. of Art; The Great Grisby) started a book club for nine inmates at Jessup Correctional Correctional Institution, MD, a maximum security prison for men. She assigned ten classics including Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, recording their comments about each work. Brottman doesn’t make entirely clear what she hoped to pass on from the meetings. Was it to show teachers the no-nonsense approach that the inmates took toward these books which have been discussed in depth by scholars? In her afterword, the author talks about a situation that many people who have worked in prisons have experienced. She met a couple of the men who had been discharged and found that they were different people. While in prison and in her book club they were compliant. This was a way of surviving. But outside, they returned to their own personalities. Brottman concludes by writing, “On the inside, I’d loved those men. But on the outside, I’d lost them.” Readers can judge for themselves. VERDICT Recommended for students and employees in the field of corrections and for instructors of literature who are open to new perspectives on the titles Brottman chose.
—Frances O. Sandiford, formerly with Green Haven Correctional Facility Lib., Stormville, NY