I had the pleasure of belonging to the Bath branch of the Book Club for Inmates and serving as the Book Club ambassador for most of my incarceration – approximately 1.5 years. My experience, while short, was extremely impactful and beneficial.
During that time I was exposed to a wide variety of literature. Some books appealed to me more than others, of course, but in hindsight I would say the most difficult reads were often the most valuable. These books – the ones that I would never pick up and read on my own – were the ones that expanded my worldview and mind the most.
One book that spoke to me was The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. The Alchemist is a parable about a shepherd boy who follows his dreams. He travels the world but eventually discovers that his treasure lay buried where his adventure began. The book teaches many valuable life principles. The shepherd boy, for example, finds that he can communicate with people who do not speak his language when he acts with his heart. The shepherd boy recognizes that there is a universal language common to all people, that we can all relate to and understand one another. The story follows the boy as he discovers and pursues his personal legend, and wise men that the boy encounters remind him that “all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve” your goals when you set your mind to something. This was an important reminder for me – that we all have deep intrinsic value, and that life and its experiences are what allow us to discover, shape, and direct that value.
I chose to write about The Alchemist because it addresses the divisiveness that is particularly prevalent in today’s society and magnified in our prison system. When we can’t relate to one another its so much easier to harm others. This may be what brings many people to prison in the first place and it is, unfortunately, a mindset that is reinforced throughout the experience of incarceration. I remember feeling rejected by society and dehumanized by guards and procedures. Even amongst other inmates we were encouraged not to make friends, and to keep to ourselves – primarily for our own safety.
The literature provided by the book club was only half the value of the experience. The other half came from the meetings themselves. First and foremost, the meetings unlocked value in each of the books – especially the ones that didn’t appeal to me. The discussion within our monthly meetings always brought fourth new perspectives and insights – both in listening to others and through my own reflection. Each meeting was an exercise in relating to and empathizing with others – members of the Book Club, volunteers, and characters from the books. The volunteers themselves were a blessing, they were genuine, sincere, and approachable. They helped create an environment where I felt like a human being and a member of society, rather than a criminal and an outcast. Finally, the Book Club served as a meeting place for like minded individuals. I was able to connect with other inmates who were interested in making the most of their time and expanding their minds.
The Book Club was an invaluable experience for me. In my opinion, as long as we intend to let people out of prison, the primary objective of incarceration should be rehabilitation. With that goal in mind, opportunities like the Book Club for Inmates are absolutely essential.