Ann Walmsley: How the joy of reading can set you free

The author takes her new book, entitled The Prison Book Club, to ... a prison book club

Ann Walmsley
Sunday 11 October 2015 13:11
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Books behind bars: After being the victim of a violent street attack, Ann Warmsley never thought she would be able to sit down and talk with prison inmates
Books behind bars: After being the victim of a violent street attack, Ann Warmsley never thought she would be able to sit down and talk with prison inmates

Next week I will walk into two men’s prisons to talk with inmates about my recently published memoir, The Prison Book Club. What a strange journey it has been to arrive at this moment. Thirteen years ago, on a September evening in Hampstead, I was violently attacked by two men outside my house, strangled in a chokehold until I was unconscious. I had no idea what they wanted: robbery, rape or murder. As it turned out, they ran off with my cell phone. I was a Canadian who had been living in London for only two months and the assault left me on guard during my remaining three years in the city. I couldn’t walk alone after dark and, even when accompanied, I carried a 13-inch flashlight with an alarm that mimicked a barking Doberman.

Back then, I could never have imagined that I would walk voluntarily into a UK prison and sit down with offenders who might have committed violent acts. But next week I will do precisely that. I’m eager to hear the prisoners’ thoughts about the book, which tells the story of the 18 months I spent participating in a monthly book club in a men’s medium-security prison in Canada. The prison book club at Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, Ontario was full of close readers with surprising and often brilliant insights about loss and redemption. Our talks about books became a vehicle of change for both them and me. The men inspired me to read the 18th-century essayist Charles Lamb, convinced me that I was all wrong about a character in Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, and they decoded T S Eliot’s poem, “Journey of the Magi” with surprising speed. I am curious to find out what the men who I meet in the British jails might add to this remarkable experience.

Access to books in UK prisons is better now than a year ago. It’s just one month since books began flowing again to prisoners from friends and families, after a High Court ruling reversed a 2013 Government plan to make books behind bars an earned privilege. One author who added his voice to the protest at this “book ban” was Mark Haddon, whose novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is one of the works the men discuss in The Prison Book Club. “The ability and opportunity to read widely – to stand in the shoes of the different and the dead, to travel to other times and into other cultures – is an important part of being human,” he wrote.

How did I, as a victim of crime, end up volunteering in a Canadian prison with men convicted of violent offences including murder? Hesitantly, to be sure, but with all of Haddon’s convictions about the power of literature. When a friend, who had started the Collins Bay Book Club, asked me to recommend books for the inmates, I quickly agreed. But when she said that I couldn’t choose books for incarcerated men without meeting them, I felt a moment of paralysing shock. I was afraid that entering the prison might re-trigger the post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms that I had experienced following the assault.

In making up my mind, I reflected upon something my father once said to me: “If you expect the best of people they will rise to the occasion.” Then I realised that fear was judgement, and I didn’t want to pre-judge people who might be trying to change their lives. I was also, as all writers are, intensely curious.

Our book club of 15 to 18 men read good literary fiction and non-fiction, titles that book clubs across the country were reading. My friend’s idea was that when the inmates were released they might “run with a book club crowd”, as one offender said, rather than with their old criminal associates. Of course, not all the inmates were literate enough to participate. Some 65 per cent of Canadian inmates have less than a Grade 8 (Year 9 here) education, according to Canada’s Literacy and Policing Project. In the UK, 48 per cent of prisoners have a reading age at or below that of an 11-year-old, according to the National Literacy Trust. But our book club had many members with borderline literacy levels who became avid readers. In New York only last week, inmates on a debating team from a maximum-security prison beat a team from Harvard.

Greater literacy wasn’t the only benefit the book club provided. Stepping into the shoes of characters and imagining their thoughts was an exercise in empathy. One man talked about finishing Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and feeling a sense of loss at saying goodbye to Offred, the protagonist, and also feeling a sense of hope for her future. That was extraordinary given another statement that he made about his own emotional numbness: “I know my past sadnesses and remember why, but cannot recall how it felt. I can describe its weight, its overwhelming nature, the mind-tricking effort required to subdue tears, but cannot for the life of me, feel it.”

Although it wasn’t our purpose to investigate whether inmates could develop greater empathy through reading, there is some science behind that idea. A report, published in 2013 in the journal Science by researchers at the New School for Social Research in New York, found that participants who read literary fiction, as opposed to genre fiction, non-fiction or nothing, demonstrated increased empathy, social perceptiveness and emotional intelligence.

The University College London neuroscientist, Dr Joseph Devlin, who studies how reading influences brain activity, points to other studies that suggest that sci-fi and fantasy may have similar benefits. He cites one 2015 study in which young people who read passages of Harry Potter novels dealing with discrimination against half-Muggle wizards became more open to other social groups. Devlin’s own research has found that the written word has the power to light up those regions of the brain that process sensory experiences, indicating how fully a reader can enter the mind a character on the page.

What we found in the Collins Bay Book Club is that reading books is only the beginning for inmates. The magic comes in discussing books with others – that social act in which readers test their ideas, share their enthusiasms for characters and map their own stories against the characters’ struggles. We found that the book club bridged racial and ethnic divides in the prison, and the men even began to make literary in-jokes among themselves. Now as I enter the UK prisons, the experience comes full circle – a prison book club reading and discussing a book about a prison book club.

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