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Views and opinions: Ohio librarian dishes on prison life and literature

Reading Behind Bars: A True Story of Literature, Law, and Life as a Prison Librarian by Jill Grunenwald

c.2019, Skyhorse Publishing

$25.99/$34.99 Canada

342 pages

Everyone knows you’ll read anywhere. At work, if you can sneak a page. In the park, in your car, on a tractor between wagons, in every room of your house, in the yard. In the bathtub, on a plane, you’re never far from a book.

Yep, you’ll read anywhere – even, as in the new book Reading Behind Bars by Jill Grunenwald, after the cuffs come off.

Grunenwald didn’t originally aim to become a librarian. True, she’d loved working part-time at a library when she was a teen and she “practically lived and breathed books,” but she set her sights on a creative writing degree.

Two years later, the light dawned and Grunenwald realized library-as-career was where she needed to be. Her first job: A Library Assistant position at the Lorain Correctional Institution in a small town outside Cleveland, Ohio.

“When I pictured my very first day as a professional librarian,” she says, “it did not involve getting handcuffed.”

But that’s what happened, since Grunenwald – or “Ms. G,” as the inmates came to call her – had to complete a staff safety class that included sampling the other side of the bars. She also had to have a constant knowledge of rules the inmates lived by; lack of knowledge, as she learned quickly, could cost her the job.

Befriending inmates was also a risky, even dangerous, endeavor. For her own safety, all personal problems had to be left “at the gate,” which left no room for dealing with them. Trust was a shaky and often rare commodity, and there was ugliness between the stacks.

And yet, the job had its moments of perfection for a book-geek: Grunenwald was buoyed by the thirtysomething man who begged to learn about the classics, and by the inmate who dreamed of being a librarian, too, someday.

Overall, it was a great job – until the “little things, adding up over the course of 20 months” began to truly bother Grunenwald. She wanted better hours and a different direction. She’d loved the opportunity she’d been given and she’d learned so much in prison, but it was time to “escape.”

A reminder: You have the right to remain silent. But with Reading Behind Bars, you won’t want to. Nope, you’ll want to share and discuss this book, preferably with another book lover because it speaks to people like you in so many ways, from literary references to insider peeks at the workings of a small community library.

It’s a reader’s read inside a lively, funny memoir, and author Jill Grunenwald tells it in a style that feels authentic. It can also be cutesy sometimes, too, and can border on the profane, but it’s got enough of the right information and plenty of great anecdotes to keep readers engaged and to make you forgive such digressions.

Library lovers will want to check this book out. Readers of prison literature will find it arresting. If you’re just curious about behind-the-scenes at a different kind of library, Reading Behind Bars will have you under lockdown.


Terri Schlichenmeyer has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a prairie in Wisconsin with two dogs, a handsome redhead, and 16,000 books.