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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Pop quiz

Back in my school days, we eager young grade-grubbers used to trade advice on which teachers marked harshly and which were more easygoing.

To the list of old softies it seems we may now add Timothy Spencer, the British judge who drew mostly unfavorable headlines last summer, when he gave a suspended sentence and a lengthy reading list to a young man convicted of possessing terrorism-related materials – tens of thousands of extremist documents, including a bomb-making manual.

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

Prosecutors are appealing the sentence as unduly lenient, but in the meantime, John returned to court last week for a scheduled check-in. Barely a month ago, it had seemed likely that he would flunk the judge’s literary pop quiz: In a doorstep interview with a newsletter that covers the British far right, John had admitted to not having started his reading.

But apparently he did enough to satisfy the only person who mattered. “It is clear that you have tried to sort your life out,” Spencer said, after reading a probation report on John’s progress. “I am encouraged by your efforts to seek employment, and I wish you well with that.”

Unaccountably, the report seems not to have included any details of John’s literary diet, because the judge asked him to write down the titles he’d read since their last meeting. Alas, the full list does not seem to have been provided to the media outlets covering the hearing (for example, here, here, and here), but John did give the judge a capsule review: "I enjoyed Shakespeare more than Jane Austen, but I still enjoyed Jane Austen to a degree.”

"Well, I find that encouraging," the judge answered.

The judge didn’t bother to explain what he found encouraging about a person with white supremacist sympathies expressing enjoyment of writers synonymous with Western cultural hegemony. (Great writers, don’t get me wrong! But not exactly edgy choices!) Presumably, Spencer still accepts uncritically all the problematic assumptions about class and culture that underpinned his strange sentence in the first place.

In his interview with the extremism newsletter last fall, John said that he had read Pride and Prejudice in high school, so it’s not clear whether he took another look this time around or relied on his earlier reading. Either way, luckily for him, the judge seems to have been grading on a curve.

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