Thursday, April 24, 2014

An Unfinished Life

Mark Spragg wrote a novel in 2004. It was titled “An Unfinished Life.” It was also selected by the Arizona State Library as the One Book Arizona selection. The State Library did promotions such as this to increase the love of reading and literacy in the state of Arizona.

At the time, I was a prison librarian and was able to get a number of copies of the book as well as the Leader’s Guide at no cost. I wanted to facilitate a book discussion group. This title was (and continues to be) an extraordinary tale of love, forgiveness, and of a complex, prodigal homecoming. Fitting, I thought, for a prison.

I advertised the event in the library and utilized a sign-up sheet. Imagine my surprise when all ten slots filled up. The inmates then signed names below, just in case someone was moved, released or dropped out.

I learned early on not to ask, “have you read the chapters for this week’s discussion?” These men were adults and my job was only to develop a love of reading in their lives. It was not to make them feel guilty or “less than” for not reading the required chapters. It was my hope that reading would become a discipline they would continue upon their release from prison.

I often told the inmate patrons that getting lost in books could and would help them to “escape” the confines of prison (if you will). Who doesn’t recall the transporting effects of feeling the sand under your feet while reading Johann David Wyss’ “The Swiss Family Robinson?” After all, it was about a shipwreck; a deserted island; a single family wondering if and how they can survive. As a child, I could get so lost inside a book that I would not hear a family member trying to get my attention (to set the table for dinner as an example). Perhaps it was selective hearing loss.

We had great discussions about the book and it was exciting to see them show up every week, book in hand to sit and discuss the week’s highlights. Sometimes they saw more depth of the characters than the leader's guide brought out. Most amazing to me, was the diversity of the group. Multiple races, multiple belief systems, yet here they were reading a work of fiction based upon life, loss and the simplicity of living the rugged life of the ‘cowboy way’ in Wyoming.

When we had finished our five week group discussion, each of the inmates submitted a “formal” report on the discussion group that was submitted to the Arizona State Library as well as their own comments about the book and program. I located a DVD that was made from the book. I rented it, advertised it though out the library and prison yard. It was produced by Robert Redford and he also starred in it as well as Morgan Freeman and Jennifer Lopez. I set a date to show the movie to the population, with hopes the reading group would show up. Indeed they did!

Now mind you, I didn’t show movies in the library often, and when I did it was for educational benefits. There was always a lesson plan and a Q & A sheet the inmates had to answer and submit. When the inmates would “ditch” before filling out the reports, it was often months before I would show another movie. It wasn’t’ entertainment – it was education. I always did a cursory count of how many were there viewing the movie. That was compared to the number of reports I received back.

Sometimes I heard my clerks in deep conversation with other inmates saying, “She told everyone straight up reports were required. Because they weren’t turned in there won’t be a movie for quite a while. You did this to yourselves.

At the appointed time the Reading Group entered the library and one-by-one they sat down to prepare for the movie. Ultimately, what happened was one-by-one they got up and left at various times during the movie. Without a doubt, each one of them had a look of disappointment and dismay on their faces when walking out. One of them looked at me and said, “This is garbage! It isn’t anything like the book!” I told him, “Well then, you got it!” “Got what?” he said. “That there is a vast difference between the written book or a novel and what Hollywood try’s to sell us,” I replied.  He smiled and nodded in the affirmative.

By the way, I just went and checked Amazon and this movie had a 4+ star rating! And we thought it was poorly done as compared to the book! Education is always a wonderful thing.

Wishing you everyday grace,

Proverbs 27:17 (NIV)
 17 As iron sharpens iron,
    so one person sharpens another.

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