Coming in 2016, from HarperCollins!
Photo by Mark Hejnar
The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men’s Prison (forthcoming from HarperCollins, 2016) is about ten classic works of literature I read with a group of prisoners at Jessup Correctional Institute, about 20 miles outside Baltimore. The book recounts what I learned about the lives and backgrounds of these men, the crimes they’d committed, and how these crimes informed the way they read and thought about the literature we read. I did not want to pander to them; I assigned them ten dark, challenging classics which I loved deeply, including Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Melville’s Bartleby The Scrivener, Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Poe’s The Black Cat, and Nabokov’s Lolita. These are books that don’t flinch from showing the isolation of the human struggle, the pain of conflict, and the price that must be paid in consequence—a price the prisoners knew only too well. Yet much as I thought I knew these difficult works, the convicts taught me to see literature in a way I’d never seen it before. As often as I’ve discussed characters like Macbeth, Mr. Kurtz, Bartleby, and Dr. Jekyll—both as a student myself, and as a professor—I’d never done so with men who actually knew what it felt like to kill from ambition, to take pleasure in other people’s pain, to look death in the face, to have nothing left to live for. Our discussions may have “only” been about literature, but for the prisoners, everything was at stake.