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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Yaffe

Required reading

Last week, a British judge imposed an unusual sentence on a young man convicted of possessing terrorism-related materials.

"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. “Start with Pride and Prejudice and Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. Think about Hardy. Think about Trollope.”

Early next year, the judge continued, he would summon John back for a reading quiz. “On January 4, you will tell me what you have read, and I will test you on it,” Spencer said, according to press reports (for example, here, here, and here). "I will test you, and if I think you are bullshitting, you will suffer.” Presumably, that suffering could include serving the two-year jail term that the judge left suspended.

So much is wrong with this situation that I hardly know where to begin.

I will pass over the unavoidable suspicion that if anyone other than a white man – for example, a brown-skinned Muslim – had been found with a concealed hard drive containing tens of thousands of extremist documents, including a manual with viable bomb-making instructions, that such a person would be facing* a punishment considerably harsher than the required reading for an EngLit survey.

I will even give the judge (possibly undeserved) partial credit for seeking a non-traditional alternative to the often brutalizing and ineffective punishment of incarceration.

But while I hope it goes without saying that I adore all the authors on Spencer’s syllabus, I can’t discern a coherent rationale for this particular non-traditional sentence. Presumably, the good judge doesn’t think it’s punitive to force someone to read great works of English literature – though perhaps John, a one-time college criminology major, might disagree. (Yes, criminology. I swear I’m not making that up.)

So does Spencer imagine that an enforced encounter with Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy will somehow neutralize John’s previous unsavory reading material? How exactly is that magical chemical process supposed to work? It’s hard to escape the whiff of classist and imperialist condescension here – the assumption that it’s “civilizing” for the less enlightened to encounter the classics. Sure, I can imagine a great humanist novel spurring a young person to rethink his half-baked prejudices, but it seems unlikely that meeting these books under threat of incarceration will conduce to such reflective engagement. It’s tough enough to enjoy a required text when a final exam looms, let alone a jail sentence.

But my biggest problem with Spencer’s literary medicine is the mismatch between disease and prescription.

John apparently harbored the usual neo-fascist prejudices: His extremist downloads included Nazi, white-supremacist, and anti-Semitic documents, and three years ago, he wrote a letter to his school “with a tirade against gay people and immigrants,” one newspaper reported.

So how does assigning him books by, and largely about, native British people who are white, heterosexual, and Christian stand a chance of budging his preconceptions? Wouldn’t a more diverse roster of authors and subject matter (Salman Rushdie! Toni Morrison! Alan Hollinghurst!) stand a better chance of initiating this unpleasant and possibly dangerous person into a post-medieval worldview? I guess we’ll know more on January 4.

* At least in the UK. I’m not a lawyer, but I imagine that in the United States, the First Amendment might protect some of this activity, however unsavory.

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