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A Utopian/Dystopian Adventure: Creating a Book Discussion for Metropolitan Detention Center


While I've been actively working on the Veterans Oral History project, my behind-the-scenes project has been creating a book discussion syllabus for a book group at Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn. 

Sailing ships at night and crumbling utopia., Digital ID 1404276, New York Public LibrarySailing ships at night and crumbling utopia., Digital ID 1404276, New York Public LibraryMDC was opened in the early 1990s and holds about 1,000 inmates who are awaiting trial or are serving brief sentences. This past August, Nick and Brian (another NYPL librarian) started a 15 week book group revolving around American literature after 9/11. Some of their reading included The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, Terrorist by John Updike, and A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. Along with these books, shorter articles are included to supplement the reading. Usually, the group met once a week to discuss the books and articles and got through one book every two weeks. Brian will be starting the program up again this spring but needed a topic.

Nick put me on the task: choose a broad topic, find books, and create a syllabus. Basically, create an English class an undergraduate would take. As an English major, this was my dream! I quickly got to work brainstorming topics; I had lots of good ideas but the topic that stuck out the most was utopia/dystopia. While there has recently been a big hype for dystopia fiction in young adult novels, authors of years and centuries past have tried to either predict the future or paint a picture of an ideal (or not so ideal) world.

So I ran with this theme. Here's what the book list is shaping up to be:

The first book has to be Thomas More's Utopia, a classic novel and really, the starting point and foundation of utopian literature. The second book is A Modern Utopia by H.G. Wells. This provides an opportunity to see how More influenced Wells but also allowed Wells took the genre in a new direction.

Edward Bellamy's Looking Backwards will be the third novel for this group. It's crucial in the genre of utopian literature for the fact it was so popular when published and even inspired the creation of utopian communities in the United States.

After reading three solid utopian novels, the fourth book would help create the discussion of what classifies as utopia and what classifies as dystopia. The book to do this is Erewhon by Samuel Butler. I figured this would be a good transition and also mark the halfway point of the class. This book was published in 1872, anonymously at first before Butler claimed it his own and later it was this novel that catapulted Butler to his literary fame.

With the discussion of utopia and dystopia present, the group will move more fully into the world of dystopias. Their next read is A Brave New World by Aldous Huxley because you really can't read about dystopias without reading it. Mention that novel to just about anyone and even though they might not have read it, they have a general idea of what it's about.

When you think of A Brave New World, there's a pretty good chance you also think of George Orwell and his Animal Farm or 1984. I didn't want to double up on authors, so chose 1984. While I enjoy Animal Farm, especially since it's a short read and the themes ring so clearly in today's society, I still felt 1984 would fit with the other novels better. I actually picked up 1984 to read because I just hadn't gotten around to it yet. Already, within the first 100 pages I'm wrapped up with Winston Smith and his crazy mind Orwell lets us peek into. I hope the group will enjoy the book as much as I am.

To finish the 15 week group, I chose the graphic novel V for Vendetta by Alan Moore as their final book. I thought it would be a nice way to end the reading group and a way to see a more contemporary view of dystopia. In a perfect world, the book discussion would end with a showing of V for Vendetta, but sadly, that is not an option available to us. Nevertheless, it should be a good to wrap up the discussion.

I had a lot of fun pulling together this book list. It was difficult at times, especially when I had to narrow down the books from the 20 or so to the final seven I selected. Hopefully, if all goes well, I might able to head out to MDC one day to see my book group in action. 


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