Parting with books — for a good cause

Some will become 'keepuhs' while others should go to prison

December 05, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

A friend of mine has been reading a particularly fine book aloud to his wife these dark autumn-almost-winter nights. It's Simon Winchester's "biography" of that great body of water to Maryland's east. Mr. Winchester's "Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories" (HarperCollins) contains prose, my friend says, that "rolls off the tongue like a long Atlantic swell. A great story well told."

Another friend read the book and said: "Simon Winchester is a man who never wrote a simple declarative sentence. This is a long one, but highly entertaining."

Mr. Winchester employs as a motif Shakespeare's "Seven Ages of Man" to chronicle the "life" of the Atlantic. "He insists on carrying this metaphor through, even when it doesn't work very well," my friend wrote when I asked his opinion. "But that doesn't detract from the book's otherwise amazing assemblage of well-told tales, understandable scientific explanations, and incredible supply of little-known facts."

So Mr. Winchester's latest work of nonfiction is, like the 36-pound cod my father caught 40 years ago in the deep sea two hours out of Plymouth, Mass., "a keepuh" (New England parlance). A cod of that size was a trophy, but, of course, we ate it. My father was a Portuguese immigrant who did not believe in hanging fish on walls unless it was to cure flanks of their flesh with lots of salt. Mr. Winchester's book is a "keepuh," in that it's one of those you'd like to keep on a shelf for another read some time in the future.

I have a few others from 2010 that qualify: Daniel Okrent's "Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition" (Scribner); Isabel Wilkerson's "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration" (Random House); and Antero Pietila's important Baltimore history, "Not In My Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City" (Ivan R. Dee). Washington College's Richard Striner came up with a keepuh, too: "Lincoln's Way: How Six Great Presidents Created American Power" (Rowman & Littlefield), as did civil rights litigator Michelle Alexander, with "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness" (The New Press).

Of course, these are all personal choices. Plenty of other books are well-written, interesting and amusing, but one doesn't become attached to them. As you're reading this, you can probably think of 10 such books. They are on shelves or in boxes, and perhaps it's time to consider passing them along for someone else's enjoyment and edification.

So I'd like to return to a recommendation made earlier this year — a donation of books to Maryland's prison libraries.

Marta Mossburg, whose column also appears in The Baltimore Sun, belongs to a book club that decided to do just that this month. "The girls are on board to donate books [to the prisons] at Christmas instead of our usual book exchange," she says. "I think lots of book clubs would be game for that."

It was Maryland's prison librarian, Glennor Shirley, who brought to our attention the need to feed books to the state's incarcerated population. Funds for new books have disappeared. The state's 12 full-time and 10 satellite prison libraries are busy places, recording about a quarter-million visits per year, according to Ms. Shirley.

There are specific needs. Inmates are looking for dictionaries and books on self-improvement, relationships, health and psychology.

Like it or not, nine of out 10 inmates get out of prison some day. The better prepared they are to return to society, the better their chances of not committing more crimes and going back on our state's $27,000-a-year per-inmate tab.

Ms. Shirley provided me with a wish list of books for the libraries in Maryland's minimum and prerelease institutions. It includes almost any kind of self-help or vocational instruction guide — from lawn care to roofing to carpentry, building decks and refinishing floors. The inmates also go for books about starting up and running a small business, about finding a job and making a good impression at an interview. There are two titles that seem particularly relevant: "Best Resumes and Letters for Ex-Offenders (Overcoming Barriers to Employment Success)" and "The Ex-Offender's Job Hunting Guide: 10 Steps to a New Life in the Work World." If you can't get your hands on those, works of John Grisham, Robert Ludlum, Alice Walker or Patricia Cornwell are appreciated, too.

Donations can be shipped to: Glennor Shirley, Correctional Education Libraries, 1100 N. Eutaw St. Room 116, Baltimore MD 21201.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His e-mail is

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