Reading Is My Window: Books and the Art of Reading in Women’s Prisons
Megan Sweeney. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010. 332 pp.
Since you’re reading our blog and are interested in the work we do, you’ll want to know about this book.
Sweeney is an assistant professor of English and Afroamerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. The book is based on individual interviews and group discussions with 94 women (mostly African American) in three institutions in North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania. She organized reading groups focusing on narratives of victimization, African American urban fiction, and self-help and inspiration texts, and explored how “women use reading to counter the ‘social death’ that imprisonment entails, and to achieve critical insight, self-development, and even transformation.”
Much of the book confirms what we have observed as volunteers—such as the popularity of some genres—but she illuminates in wonderfully complex ways “the wide range of motivations, needs, and desires that women bring to the act of reading.” We’re reminded too that the sight and smell and feel of books can be vital “in a space that offers few sanctioned opportunities for soothing human touch, intimacy or sensory delight.”
The women’s voices are a strong current throughout. For example, Denise reflects after her final group discussion, “Finally, I got a chance to say how I feel about a book to somebody that was willing to listen, somebody that understood, somebody else that saw some of the things I did. I got excited about every book I read because it was like a me inside of me getting a chance to come out, and it would just live!'”
Sweeney also provides an overview of the history of reading programs, education and libraries in U.S. penal institutions—and how opportunities for reading and education have been reduced in recent years (while television viewing is greatly encouraged).
Despite the challenges, the resourcefulness of the women shines through in their engagement with books, including in ways she didn’t necessarily expect. For example, she raises the concerns of some feminist theorists that self-help books can instill an identity of victimization, but we see how the women in prison actually use such books to make meaning of their own experiences in a variety of insightful and productive ways.
This is an important, compassionate book. Highly recommended. And yes, she does mention Chicago Books for Women in Prison. You’ll find us in the Appendix under “Organizations that Gather Books for Prisoners: A Representative Sample.”