The Maximum Security Book Club (Hardcover)
Reading Literature in a Men's Prison
Harper, 9780062384331, 272pp.
Publication Date: June 7, 2016
A riveting account of the two years literary scholar Mikita Brottman spent reading literature with criminals in a maximum-security men’s prison outside Baltimore, and what she learned from them—Orange Is the New Black meets Reading Lolita in Tehran.
On 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 story “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.
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 in the selected reading, it refuses to back away from the unexpected insights offered by the company of these complex, difficult men. It is a compelling, thoughtful analysis of literature—and prison life—like nothing you’ve ever read before.
About the Author
Mikita Brottman, PhD, is an Oxford-educated scholar, author, and psychoanalyst. She has written seven previous books, including The Great Grisby: Two Thousand Years of Literary, Royal, Philosophical, and Artistic Dog Lovers and Their Exceptional Animals, and is a professor of humanities at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and continues with her weekly reading group at Jessup Correctional Institution.
Praise For The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men's Prison…
— Baltimore Sun
“Charming…In the end, the club shows how reading literature can be a moral project, a workshop open to all.”
— Boston Globe
“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.”
“This memoir’s energy emanates from Brottman’s sharp understanding of group dynamics and her determination to avoid clichés. She delves into the personal stories of the men she met behind bars, and is clear-eyed both about literature’s powers and its limitations.”
— Los Angeles Times, "4 new nonfiction books not to be missed"
“Take nine convicted felons…Add a well-meaning literary scholar armed only with cheap reprints of challenging books...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.”
— Wally Lamb, New York Times bestselling author of WE ARE WATER
“Swiftly and sensitively written…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
“…Steers clear of facile sentimentality. There is no transformation or redemption in Brottmann’s story, only honest moments of encounter…made possible by the act of reading literature. Brottman 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 and THE WAY TO A MEANINGFUL LIFE
“One of the best books about teaching I’ve ever read, it 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
“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