Beth Ayer is a graduate student in the Professional Writing program at UMass Dartmouth, and the web editor for Changing Lives, Changing Minds.
The Elements of Persuasion: Use Storytelling to Pitch Better, Sell Faster & Win More Business by Richard Maxwell and Robert Dickman, banned from Texas prisons, begins with a quote from Harvard University psychologist Howard Gardner:
“Every great leader is a great storyteller.”
The Elements of Persuasion aims to teach readers how to tell stories in order to “have control over [their] own work and ideas.” This book is banned with thousands of others with little explanation, according to a recent article published by the Austin American-Statesman.
There are many good questions to ask regarding why prisons ban certain books. However, one fact is indisputable: Texas prison authorities clearly believe in the power of books to impact the lives and actions of readers. They acknowledge that belief by disqualifying literature from pop fiction to work by Nobel Laureates, National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winners. And, of course, The Elements of Persuasion:
All successful stories have five basic components: the passion with which the story is told, a hero who leads us through the story and allows us to see it through his or her eyes, an antagonist or obstacle that the hero must overcome, a moment of awareness that allows the hero to prevail, and the transformation in the hero and in the world that naturally results.
The components of great stories, as described by Maxwell and Dickman, have unlimited potential to positively impact readers. Does being empowering qualify a book for banning?
The Austin American-Statesman reports that around 5,000 titles have been banned over the last 5 years in Texas prisons. Push by Saphire is on that list; its film version, Precious, just won two Academy Awards (one for Best Adapted Screenplay).
America’s incarcerated are missing out on an overwhelming amount of reading material, acclaimed and otherwise. They’re also being denied the education contained in those books, and this in the country labeled among the world’s highest incarceration rate.
A 2008 New York Times article compared the United States percentage of the world population (less than 5 percent) to the percentage of the world’s prisoners (nearly 25 percent). Despite long and severe prison terms, the U.S. recidivism rate is notoriously high. Most people would probably agree that education plays a significant role in fixing the costly prison system.
Even the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons agrees that opportunity is a part of the solution:
The Federal Bureau of Prisons protects society by confining offenders in the controlled environments of prisons and community-based facilities that are safe, humane, cost-efficient, and appropriately secure, and that provide work and other self-improvement opportunities to assist offenders in becoming law-abiding citizens.
Likewise, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s mission statement claims an emphasis on positive change:
The mission of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is to provide public safety, promote positive change in offender behavior, reintegrate offenders into society, and assist victims of crime.
How can prison systems hope to “promote positive change” while restricting access to education?
Robert Dickman and Richard Maxwell comment astutely on the banning of their business book: “If there is one quality you’d think you’d want to improve in prison, it is the ability to communicate clearly and nonviolently. Studies on gang behavior have shown that good communication skills reduce physical violence across the board.”
What do you think? Is there ever a good reason to ban a book? Or are the “elements of persuasion” (and critical thinking, effective communication and problem solving) simply not skills the U.S. prison system would like to promote?
Further reading on Texas’s book ban: