• Deborah Yaffe

Crunch time

Kids! Always leaving their homework to the last minute!


Last summer, as blog readers will recall, a British judge sentenced a young man convicted of possessing terrorism-related materials to a course of classic reading.


"Have you read Dickens? Austen?” Judge Timothy Spencer asked the defendant, twenty-one-year-old Ben John, who had faced up to fifteen years in prison but instead got a two-year suspended sentence. “Start with Pride and Prejudice and Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Think about Hardy. Think about Trollope.”


Prosecutors appealed the sentence as too lenient – the appeal is still pending – and numerous outside groups expressed outrage, even as the judge promised to summon John back to court on January 4 for a quiz on all that improving literature.


In late November, when Scout, a newly launched newsletter covering the British far right, asked John how he was getting along with the books, he admitted that he had “not got to grips with any of them.” His Trollope and Hardy selections, he said, were in a box at home somewhere.


According to Scout, John’s suspended sentence likely includes more stringent and precise conditions than EngLit homework, so it’s not clear that missing out on Malvolio and Sydney Carton will actually land him in jail. But John would be well advised to hit the books anyway, one barrister told the newsletter. “A judge might take a dim view of a defendant he has released if they don't follow their recommendations,” the lawyer said. “If he were to breach an order in those circumstances, he is unlikely to get any more leniency.”


Given his unfortunate procrastination, John is facing a lot of cramming: Even assuming he chooses shorter Trollope and Hardy novels (The Warden, maybe? Under the Greenwood Tree?), he’s probably looking at over a thousand pages. With less than a month remaining till his high-stakes final exam, that’s going to require a disciplined pace of some forty pages a day – doable, yes, but still a commitment, even for a man who apparently downloaded tens of thousands of problematic documents, including antisemitic writings and bomb-making instructions.


Luckily for John, however, he can cross at least one item off his homework list: He read Pride and Prejudice in high school, he told Scout. Apparently, that experience didn’t wean him off his neo-fascist views, however. Go figure.

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