Semi-Open Thread Friday

Following is a list of the books convicts might read in Boston’s “Changing Lives Through Literature” program to avoid incarceration for their crimes.    

I have a hard time imagining convicts settling down to read Anne Tyler, or Sylvia Plath, or Annie Proulx (maybe this is punishment), or Anna Quindlan, or Jane Hamilton, or Anita Shreve.  Yet the thought of car thieves settling in with Edith Wharton is weirdly . . . comforting.

On the other hand, how can people who have just skirted jail (and any responsibility for their crimes) in the warm, supportive bosom of “alternative sentencing” find anything of relevance to their condition in Animal Farm or One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest or Aleksander Solzhenitsyn?  Many of these entries beg the question: what, precisely does this book teach other than contempt for the criminal justice system and society in general?

And Down and Out in Paris and London?  The autobiography of an Old Etonian who clocked time slumming in Paris between the Wars?  Are there many comp lit. students on probation?         

Comments welcome, though still moderated.


Novels Used in Changing Lives Through Literature

James Agee, A Death in the Family

Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven

Dorothy Allison, Bastard Out of Carolina

Margaret Atwood, Alias Grace

Russell Banks, Affliction 

Russell Banks, Rule of the Bone

Russell Banks, The Sweet Hereafter

Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street 

Chris Crutcher, Ironman 

Edwidge Danticat, Breath, Eyes, Memory

James Dickey, Deliverance

Janet Fitch, White Oleander 

Alexandra Flinn, Breathing Underwater

Jack Gantos, Hole in My Life

Jane Hamilton, Map of the World

Kent Haruf, Plainsong 

Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea 

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God 

Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Barbara Kingsolver, The Bean Trees 

Barbara Kingsolver, Pigs in Heaven

Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams

Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird

Francess Lantz, Fade Far Away

Billie Letts, Where the Heart Is

Jack London, Seawolf

Jack London, The Call of the Wild 

Lois Lowry, The Giver

Bernard Malamud, The Assistant

Bobbie Ann Mason, In Country

Joyce McDonald, Swallowing Stones

Ben Mikaelsen, Touching Spirit Bear

Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye 

Toni Morrison, Sula

Gloria Naylor, The Women of Brewster Place

Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

Tillie Olsen, Tell me a Riddle

George Orwell, Animal Farm

George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London

Gordon Parks, The Learning Tree

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

Annie Proulx, The Shipping News

Anna Quindlen, Black and Blue

Daniel Quinn, Ishmael

J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye

Esmerelda Santiago, When I was a Puerto Rican

Anita Shreve, Strange Fits of Passion 

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Scott Smith, A Simple Plan 

John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men 

John Steinbeck, The Pearl

Anne Tyler, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant 

Larry Watson, Montana, l948

Tobias Wolff, The Barracks Thief

Edith Wharton, Ethan Frome

Richard Wright, Black Boy


6 thoughts on “Semi-Open Thread Friday”

  1. If you have a hard time, as you say imagining criminal offenders reading these books, you should realize that everyone is always welcome to any of the CLTL sessions whether in Texas or or in MAssachusetts, conservative or liberal, and you too should join us in one of the energetic discussions evoked by good books.

  2. I think the choices made by these offenders are largely designed to impress favorably the people in charge of these programs. Apparently, accepting Jesus gets you brownie points in the system; also apparently reading Edith Wharton gains you a few points too.

    Transparently a scam, but who is scamming whom? The offenders are scamming the well-meaning CLTL folks? Or are the CLTL people cynically scamming the public?

  3. CLTL: Your response implied that people who disagree with you are probably “conservative.” Whatever that means. Do you have any basis for saying this, other than prejudice?

  4. The whole premise assumes that reading and discussing literature prevents crime. Maybe that comes from the observation that English majors are not generally profiled for crime? If there is a good effect from the program, I’d have to say it comes from the attention that is given the convicts from those who have a positive role in society. If the construct works, fine.

    But looking at the ‘studies’ listed on the site failed to convince me that the program is effective. A probation officer compiled some numbers for a period (’91-’96) and claimed very high success rates. A cursory look at the numbers, though, showed that his analysis of the statistics was flawed. For instance, if 2 out of six participants were remanded to custody, those numbers were not part of the analysis; the number of convictions (I guess, or maybe it was arrests, hard to tell) were compared. The ‘study’ did seem to show that most participants stayed out of trouble, but there was no control group, so it’s hard to say how they differed from a similar population that didn’t participate.

    I’m all for people volunteering their time to help those in trouble find a meaningful place in society, but CLTL pushes hard the idea that incarceration is not a good idea. Personally, I subscribe to the idea that crime is not a good idea. Jails and prisons are society’s best answer for a slew of individuals with bad intent, motives and outlook. It’d be nice if we didn’t need those places, but I’ve got more evidence that we do, as opposed to CLTL’s that we don’t. If they’d like to see my evidence, I know a few street corners where I could drop them off. They’d experience the evidence, first-hand.

  5. To Mark and Chris: I want criminals to be punished for their crimes. For those who will be released one day, yes I am going to assume that reading is a less violent activity than the other activities I’ve witnessed at prisons I’ve toured. Though I’ve only seen prisons in NY state and IL, I don’t think what I saw was exceptional. I saw abunch of dangerous men being made more dangerous.

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