When you've amassed a personal library of hundreds of books over a lifetime, the tough process of passing those loved volumes on starts with the question: where should they end up?
When faced with this question, Orlando-based writer Mark I. Pinsky reached out to Asheville Prison Books. He chose our project because of his abiding connection to western North Carolina, and because he views prisons as one of the last places in the country where a deep engagement with books and reading continues to flourish.
In addition to pledging a donation of dozens (possibly as many as 100+) books, Pinksy also interviewed a volunteer about the work we do, and published the article in the Washington Independent Review of Books. The article below is excerpted with permission from the author. To read the original publication click here.
Letting Go, Setting Free
By Mark I. Pinksy
August 24, 2018
Asheville Prison Books
For those of us of a certain age who have been regular or occasional reviewers or just book lovers, the sight of groaning shelves throughout the house can be troubling. It's time to thin them out so they won’t be a burden to our kids — or get wasted at postmortem yard sales.
The brutal truth is that these hundreds of hardcovers and paperbacks, as much as they are beloved, need a new home, a place where they will be read by many — and equally loved. And a destination where the donation will not undermine royalties of fellow authors.
As we know, there aren’t many such places left, except for U.S. jails and prisons. In the United States, there are more than 2 million inmates serving time in federal, state, and county facilities.
Organizations like Asheville Prison Books (APB) have sprung up around the country.
APB covers North and South Carolina prisons and gets 50-100 inmate requests a month. In the Southeast, Florida has its own affiliate in Pensacola, but Georgia does not. There are several national organizations for inmates from other states, where APB sends requests from outside the Carolinas.
Like many, APB is a shoestring operation, working out of Asheville’s Downtown Books & News and staffed entirely by volunteers.
The nonprofit collective was established in 1999. I chose to give my surplus books to APB because I like that part of the country, and one of my nonfiction books takes place in the area. So, on a late August trip to western North Carolina, I paid them a visit.
On a Saturday morning, I meet one of the volunteers. Their jerry-built office at the back is a cramped, donated 8’x10’ area — two walls are bookshelves — in the back of [Downtown Books and News], which sells used books and a wide array of periodicals. The volunteer calls [the bookstore's] staff “allies of the program.”
The program, she explains, was a response to the dearth of prison-funded literacy and rehabilitation programs, which coincided with the explosion in prison populations and the simultaneous reduction of resources.
“I think it’s great that people want to support Asheville Prison Books by donating books and money and time,” the volunteer says, largely “because they have severe criticism of mass incarceration.”
Donated paperbacks less than two inches thick, most used, but some new, are sent in parcels of two to inmates who request specific titles, authors, or subject areas. A rotating cast of six to eight volunteers fills the requests in the tiny office and sends them to a larger venue where more volunteers wrap them for shipment.
When the inmates finish the books, they pass them along to friends — since most institutions limit the number that can be kept in cells — so the majority ultimately end up in prison libraries.
The most popular titles are dictionaries (especially Spanish-English), vocational, and educational, including language instruction and study guides for the GED. Also, books by and for people of color.
There are restricted categories, too: porn and “incitement” — the latter of which can be interpreted broadly, if not capriciously, by prison authorities.
One once-banned title was The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander. The ban was ended when the ACLU filed suit against the North Carolina prison system. When the title was allowed, a Christian community partner “Faith 4 Justice” purchased a number of new copies at cost from another bookstore around the corner from Broadway Books, Malaprop’s.
What the project needs most now, the volunteer says, is money to cover postage.
Back home in Orlando, the actual process of culling and shipping the books off to Asheville is turning out to be more emotional for me than I had imagined, entailing a certain amount of psychologically letting go.
As with many of life’s challenges and crises, I approach the culling in stages. So, I’m starting to fill boxes with books for people who will love them, too.
Orlando-based freelance writer Mark I. Pinsky is the author of five nonfiction books, most recently Met Her on the Mountain: A Forty-Year Quest to Solve the Appalachian Cold-Case Murder of Nancy Morgan (John Blair).