STARRED REVIEW
June 2016

Convicts connect with classic literature

By Mikita Brottman
Review by
Nine male convicted felons, serving long sentences for violent crimes, meet regularly with a sensitive, witty female professor inside a maximum security prison to read and discuss works by literary giants like Conrad, Kafka, Nabokov, Poe and Shakespeare. What could go wrong? The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men’s Prison is Mikita Brottman’s refreshingly straightforward account about all that did go right, as together they explored Heart of Darkness, The Black Cat, Lolita and other rather unlikely candidates for prison reading.
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Nine male convicted felons, serving long sentences for violent crimes, meet regularly with a sensitive, witty female professor inside a maximum security prison to read and discuss works by literary giants like Conrad, Kafka, Nabokov, Poe and Shakespeare. What could go wrong? The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men’s Prison is Mikita Brottman’s refreshingly straightforward account about all that did go right, as together they explored Heart of Darkness, The Black Cat, Lolita and other rather unlikely candidates for prison reading. 

Brottman is an Oxford-educated scholar volunteering within the grim walls of Maryland’s Jessup Correctional Institute, bringing her deep love of literature to men who, she hopes, will find something meaningful for themselves in the books she cherishes. Her own troubled childhood led her to seek escape in such works; complex characters like Conrad’s Marlow and Shakespeare’s Macbeth, she reasons, may help these convicts reach a deeper understanding of themselves and each other. They seem willing to try. But the crushing weight of prison life—unrelenting boredom, punitive corrections officers, random lockdowns, solitary confinements, illnesses and violent gang fights—takes its toll. 

They all make mistakes here: Brottman misspeaks to a reporter and worries the club will be cancelled altogether. The men nod off when high or ill. She wonders why she ever thought reading about the pedophile and nymphet in Lolita was a good idea. Then again, they make her see Gregor’s transformation into a bug in Metamorphosis in an entirely new way.

Later, when two of the men are released and Brottman meets them “outside,” she discovers they have no more interest in reading literature. “On the inside,” she concludes, “I’d loved those men. But on the outside, I’d lost them. Because literature was all I had.” Not quite all: She tells her own good story here, too.

 

This article was originally published in the June 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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