Canada’s Best Prison Library

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Last week Quebec’s ImagiNation Writers’ Festival graciously hosted me in perhaps the best venue yet for The Prison Book Club: Quebec’s first purpose-built common gaol and now home to a fine English-language library. A perfect pairing of a prison and books. My first glimpse of it through the snow reminded me of Toronto’s Don Jail, but older, with a severe and beautiful Palladian limestone façade . It was so tightly woven into the city’s fabric, a departing prisoner could have walked 10 paces and found himself in the close of St. Andrew’s Church. Designed by Quebec City’s leading architect of the day, François Baillairgé, and incorporating the prison reform ideas of John Howard, it operated as a gaol from 1812 to 1868 and now houses the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec, which has been in existence since 1824 and has hosted such authors as Charles Dickens and Emmylene Pankhurst. After my event, I toured the building’s spectacular library and the cells, with graffiti carved into the wooden floor planks. A wood floor in a prison!


The Importance of Book Clubs

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When I started out as a journalist in the 1980s, an eccentric editor once said to me: “What’s the point of being in a book club? It takes away from your time for reading books!” He might have been kidding. But here’s what I wish I had told him: reading and discussing a book with others can be a much richer experience than reading it by yourself. Among other things, readers in a book club come away with a shared memory of spending an hour or two together grappling with an author’s ideas. Without that, a book “fades”, as one of the men in the prison book club once told the other inmates.

I read Margaret Atwood’s novel Alias Grace in hardcover when it first came out in 1996. But it only became part of my shared history with someone else 16 years later when I read it with the men in the two prison book clubs. My experience of the book is now inextricable from the faces and voices of the inmates. I associate it with images of the prison meeting room: the old Bunn coffee maker in the corner, the sound of construction outside, the blue-painted concrete walls, the sour smell that pervaded the prison, the men coming in with notes and marked pages and the moment when one inmate stunned me by suggesting that one character in the novel was merely a product of another character’s imagination or disordered mind. What’s more, our discussion coincided with the news that the federal government was closing nearby Kingston Penitentiary, where Grace Marks, the inspiration for Atwood’s protagonist, served a long sentence. That closure seemed to connect us to the novel in a new way. The men were elated by the coincidence, as though life and art had collided. Those events and conversations served to imprint the book on us in a more permanent way.