Monday, August 24, 2009

Fighting Crime One Book At A Time

We are very pleased to welcome Nancy Mattoon to Booktryst with this, her first post. Nancy will be walking the library beat, covering news, issues, and human interest stories from the stacks with her thirty years of experience and perspective as a librarian.

As librarians are well aware, even in the book world no good deed goes unpunished. Getting the right book into the right hands seems innocent enough—until it isn’t. Headline hungry scribes sometimes seek to link books and crime; the permanent stain on “The Catcher in the Rye” after being found in the possession of both Mark David Chapman and John Hinkley post-crime is the most notorious example. And censors still have a field day with the “evil” items made available in the Children’s Room. Top targets on that hit parade: the “Harry Potter” series and Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy.

But what of the notion that books can actually help fight crime? Two recent stories point out how the humble book may be a useful tool for the Thin Blue Line

As Cindy Gonzalez reports in the Omaha World-Herald, Police Officers in that city who work with Project Harmony, an advocacy center that investigates child abuse and sexual assault, now come equipped with a red backpack. Inside is a variety of books ranging from the obviously bibliotherapeutic, “Hug Me” by Patti Stren; to escapist fare,“9 Magic Wishes”, the only children's book by Shirley Jackson author of “The Lottery”;to simple distractions from an agonizing reality, “NFL’s Greatest Upsets” by James Buckley, Jr.

The idea came from project coordinator Steve Countryman, who hopes the books can serve multiple purposes for the Officers. Titles will be used to keep a child occupied while others involved in the incident are interviewed. They may also serve as a means to improve community relations, the gift of a book striking a positive note during an otherwise tense contact with law enforcement. Finally it is hoped the contents of those red backpacks may actually reduce the crime rate. Countryman believes studies show that “Youths who read and do well in school get into less mischief.” No need to tell that to Philadelphia bookstore owner Hakim Hopkins. Hopkins, owner of the Black & Nobel Bookstore in the inner city neighborhood of Tioga, was in juvenile detention at age 15 when a book changed his life. Hopkins’ Mother gave him a copy of Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” and reading the tragic tale of Bigger Thomas, a young black man convicted of homicide in 1930’s Chicago, turned his life around. As Hopkins told Kia Gregory of Philly Online “That book just took me out. I didn’t know a book could be that good. I became a book lover, and a thinker.”

Hopkins was transformed into such a devoted reader that he began selling his ever-increasing collection of used books on the street. After numerous run-ins with, yes, The Law, over the lack of a business license, Hopkins found a room of his own—in a flower shop. Neighborhood business owner “Aunt Brenda” gave him a space in the front of her store, provided he was willing to “deliver funeral flowers on Saturdays” in exchange. This later gave way to the now freestanding Black & Nobel Bookstore, the name chosen as a sly change-up on competition, Barnes and Noble.

The store is now a neighborhood institution specializing in urban fiction, and such titles as “Raw Law,” a hip-hop guide to jurisprudence. There is one other specialty of note. A banner on the front of Black & Nobel reads “We Ship To Prisons.” And they do, at least 100 titles a week. Perhaps one of those titles will have the same impact on the reader that “Native Son” had on Mr. Hopkins: redirecting a traveler down the primrose path onto the straight and narrow.

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