The idea of using reading as punishment seems at first incomprehensible, even for those of us who may have declared “Robinson Crusoe” cruel and unusual when it was assigned in the sixth grade. (Come to think of it, what reader hasn’t privately labeled at least one dreaded tome as “torturous?”) Still, all snark aside, it’s an interesting question: Can—or should—criminals be made to read certain books while they’re serving their time?
I’ve been struggling over what to make of the recent news that a Michigan teen-ager was ordered to read three books per month as a part of his sentence for his involvement in a fatal hit-and-run accident. Back in June, the fifteen-year-old boy fled the scene after he crashed his mother’s Mercedes into another car, killing its driver. He later pleaded no contest to vehicular manslaughter, driving without a license, and failing to stop at the scene of a crash. Apparently, the victim—fifty-nine-year-old Penny Przywara—had been an avid reader, and the judge got it in his head that it would be a good idea for the teen-age driver to read some of her favorite books. One of Przywara’s daughters said in court that her mother had loved “The Catcher in the Rye,” and the judge decided that the book could teach the boy a lesson. “You could be Holden Caulfield,” he said. “You’ve got a lot to learn about responsibility and about yourself.” The reading assignment will be carried out while the boy is held in a juvenile detention center, where he will remain until he turns nineteen.
Something about this situation calls to mind that part in “To Kill a Mockingbird” when Mrs. Dubose orders Jem to read to her each week as a punishment for having destroyed her precious camellias. At first, Jem and Scout are terrified, and they dread the task. Scout recalls their first visit:
“So you brought that dirty little sister of yours, did you?” was her greeting.
Jem said quietly, “My sister ain’t dirty and I ain’t scared of you,” although I noticed his knees shaking.
I was expecting a tirade, but all she said was, “You may commence reading, Jeremy.” Jem sat down in a cane-bottom chair and opened “Ivanhoe.” I pulled up another one and sat beside him.
“Come closer,” said Mrs. Dubose. “Come to the side of the bed.”
We moved our chairs forward. This was the nearest I had ever been to her, and the thing I wanted most to do was move my chair back again.
But soon, of course, Jem’s attitude begins to change. He learns to tolerate Mrs. Dubose. He matures before our eyes, gradually piecing together truths about the world:
Jem’s chin would come up, and he would gaze at Mrs. Dubose with a face devoid of resentment. Through the weeks he had cultivated an expression of polite and detached interest, which he would present to her in answer to her most blood-curdling inventions.
It’s a poignant scene: a crotchety old woman wants to teach a boy a lesson, and in the process she helps transform him into a patient and pleasant—if not entirely enthusiastic—companion. What happened in Michigan is much more grave, of course. Jem ruined some flowers; the Michigan boy took a woman’s life. I don’t mean to equate the two, or to suggest that we should let dangerous criminals roam free, so long as they’re armed with paperbacks instead of guns. The sentencing of minors is a particularly contentious issue, and there are those who will argue that a fatal hit-and-run crash warrants more than an invitation to the library at the juvenile detention center. But if one takes the view that a sentence—especially for someone so young—should include rehabilitation, assigning books might be a good idea. If we believe that literature really can transform lives and soothe troubled hearts, it can’t hurt to encourage prisoners to read.
There are numerous organizations devoted to this very principle, including Changing Lives Through Literature, a program founded in Massachusetts and later expanded to other courts throughout the United States. Some supporters of “alternative sentencing” believe so strongly in the redemptive power of literature that they argue that certain criminal offenders should be able to complete a reading course as a condition of probation, rather than going to jail at all. Combining traditional sentencing with alternative reading programs might be an innovative way to treat criminals compassionately while simultaneously cutting down the likelihood of repeat offenses.