Ann Walmsley: The Prison Book Club



This book took me back to a time when I was living in Papua New Guinea with almost no access to books. The random few I could get my hands on I read with an intensity that the great works of literature from the university course I’d just finished had rarely stirred in me. I read with the same intensity that the men in this book read, but I read much less thoughtfully.

In 2010 Ann Walmsley’s friend Carol Finlay started a book club at Collins Bay, a penitentiary for men in Kingston, two hours east of Toronto, and enveigled the reluctant Ann into it. Still traumatised from a violent mugging some years before, Ann was not at all keen to spend time in a medium-security male prison, but Carol is a force of nature, and it wasn’t long before Ann was deeply involved with the books, the meetings and the men. Here are just a few of the extraordinary range of books they read: Alias Grace, The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night time, A Fine Balance, The Grapes of Wrath, and The Boy in The Moon, the story of a father’s struggle to come to terms with his son’s severe disabilities. The men bring everything to their discussion of the books – their own histories, their beliefs about how life should be, their theories about why we act the way we do, their wry knowingness about our worst instincts, and their curiosity about why writers make the choices they do.

 As I read I thought of my own approach to reading. How pallid and constrained it seemed. I thought of book clubs I’ve belonged to, of highly-educated and consciously empathetic and liberal-thinking people, and the fact that for years I’ve chosen not to be a member of a book club. Asked which she’d prefer, an evening with her Toronto book club of women friends, or a meeting of the Collins Bay club, Walmsley says:

I would give up the wine and beer, the hot pear-and-apple crumble and the unusual cheeses to sit without drinking or eating anything in a room with the prison inmates I knew. Why? Because so much more is at stake. Anything could happen there that could change their lives or mine. And I am sure that least one of their comments would stay with me always. (268)

This is not a pollyannaish book. The stories we hear about the different members of the club range from the inspiring to the downright depressing. Carol Finlay herself is tough-minded. She’s never seen the book clubs as a way to rehabilitate; it’s simply that she loves books herself and knew this was something she could give.

Read it with your book club. It will change things. And if it doesn’t, find another book club.

Ann Walmsley The Prison Book Club (Oneworld 2015).

11 thoughts on “Ann Walmsley: The Prison Book Club

  1. Very thought-provoking. Your piece reminds me of an online friend, a librarian who runs a book group with prisoners here in the UK. I know that he has found it eye-opening, but incredibly rewarding too. As you say, I get the sense that there is something very vital about their discussions, so much is up for grabs.

    1. Yes, I think you’d like this Leslie. Carol Finlay is a person who’s really made a difference.These groups have spread across Canadian prisons and into the US.

  2. Wow! Passionate and enticing introduction to the book. I have not finished yet that book that I still owe my impressions about (Alexandrian Summer). As soon as I finish the reading, The Prison Book Club will be my next one. Thanks so much for your very rich posts, my friends! Take care! 🙂

    1. Do let us know what you think of Alexandrian Summer. The Prison Book Club is a really interesting read. It’s great to know there are people in the world who think about prisoners as human beings.

  3. This book is on order at my local library and I have reserved a copy. will recommend for my book group.i sometimes think we get away from the book more than we should but perhaps not.

    1. I thought of that too. But there’s a difference in people telling stories about their grandchildren, or saying something is powerful just because it’s happened to them, and the way these men talk about the books, as you’ll find when you read it. And obviously the leaders were very skilled.

  4. Discussion doesn’t extend to grandchildren stories in our varied group which includes a member who was interned in China in World War 2 but I look forward to reading the mens’ stories and their powerful responses to the books.

    1. No aspersions on your book group! But I think you’ll be struck, as I was, by the men’s engagement with the books, and the way the books matter to them,which is something I’ve never encountered in the groups I’ve been in. Others may be luckier.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s