Why men opt out of the (women’s) fiction world

by Leonce Gaiter

Fewer and fewer men read fiction. They compose only about 20% of the fiction market according to surveys. Some lay this off to genetics, suggesting that the way men’s minds work discourages them from entering into another’s experience the way fiction demands.

“Boys and men are, in general, more convergent and linear in their thinking; this would naturally draw them towards non-fiction,” wrote author Darragh McManus, pondering the question.

Others, like Jason Pinter, suggest that the overwhelmingly female publishing industry simply overlooks books that appeal to men because they fall outside the female experience. In other words, men now suffer the same fate women suffered at the hands of a male-dominated publishing industry for so many years.

Others suggest that boys are discouraged from reading at a young age by children’s books that fail to engage them. Give them the proper material, the story goes, and young boys will engage with reading. They point to the fact that young males were principal consumers of the Harry Potter books as proof. “More boys than girls have read the Harry Potter novels,” according to U.S. publisher, Scholastic. “What’s more, Harry Potter made more of an impact on boys’ reading habits. Sixty-one percent agreed with the statement ‘I didn’t read books for fun before reading Harry Potter,’ compared to 41 percent of girls.”

I always balked at these rationales because I read fiction all the time. However, thinking on it, I had to admit that I avoid modern fiction like the plague. I have tried the popular plot-thick page-turners and the feel-good tearjerkers and the occasional cause célèbre with a literary reputation. So many have left me so cold, that I simply won’t shell out the cash for a paperback or e-book version, much less a hardcover.

Trying to assess what I find lacking in most of the current novels I attempt, I believe their utter reliance on the world around them (and me) is supremely dull. So many work so hard to place characters in a world I will recognize. Too many work hard to create characters with which I (or their prime demographic audience) will ‘identify’ with and recognize as someone they could be, or someone they know.

It then made sense that men would ask why they should read something “made up” about this world when there is plenty of factual reading material on that subject. I have never approached fiction to re-visit “this world.” I’m already here. Instead, I want an alternative—a vision of this world exhaled through the writers’ and characters’ hearts, minds and eyes. Exhaled with the distinction of the smell of an individual’s breath. Fitzgerald’s Long Island in The Great Gatsby is his own creation, no kitchen sink recreation. Fitzgerald’s people and prose warp this place into something utterly unique.

Raymond Chandler’s Los Angeles is his distinctive projection of that city. You don’t pick up Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me with the idea of identifying with the protagonist. You don’t grab Faulkner to meet the boys next door or titter with recognition of your kith and kin. You don’t visit Patricia Highsmith to look in a mirror. You pick them up to enter worlds as fantastical in their way as Harry Potter’s. I read fiction to meet characters I otherwise would not. I read fiction for the larger than life—not a retread of this one. I want to watch and think with characters who are nothing like me, who dare what I never would, who experience in ways that I cannot.

In an article titled, “Why Women Read More Than Men,” NPR suggested a biological reason why women read more fiction than men, quoting Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain. “The research is still in its early stages, but some studies have found that women have more sensitive mirror neurons than men. That might explain why women are drawn to works of fiction, which by definition require the reader to empathize with characters.”

Reading fiction does not require that you empathize with characters in the sense of “ascribing… feelings or attitudes present in oneself.” It requires that you regard and grow intrigued by characters such that you may come to a greater understanding of them—perhaps even to the point of empathizing with them. However, you need not imagine yourself as them, or believe that they behave as you or as members of your social circle would. That’s not reading; it’s narcissism.

Perhaps more men stopped reading fiction when fiction stopped regularly presenting unique, literary revisions of this world, and settled for presenting a photographic facsimile such that readers (most of them female) could better “empathize.” Maybe we’re too megalomaniacal and obsessed with grandeur for that, and thus want words recreated and re-imagined, instead of rehashed.

“Shall I project a world,” asks Oedipa Maas in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. Somewhere along the line, in tandem with the female domination of the publishing industry and fiction readership, the ideal of doing so fell from vogue. Instead, writers rely more and more on identification with this one. Male readers seem to have checked out.

Leonce GaiterLeonce Gaiter is a prolific African American writer and proud Harvard Alum. His writing has appeared in the NY Times, NYT Magazine, LA Times, Washington Times, and Washington Post, and he has written two novels. His newly released novel In the Company of Educated Men, published by Astor + Blue Editions, is a literary thriller with socio-economic, class, and racial themes.

The 10 Tips For Getting the Most of Readings ( And This Program )

by Lance Eaton

The following is a handout I provide for participants on the first meeting to help them think about literature and how the program runs. What they receive is the numbered items, and the text below each is usually what I explain as we go over the handout.

1. Learning is a building exercise, not a filling station.

The research increasingly shows that one’s approach to learning can be pivotal to their ability to learn. To this end, it’s important to understand that learning is something they can continue to do throughout their lives and that their mind is not necessarily finite. Basically, so long as they maintain a belief that they can learn, they will continue to learn.

I make this point first because we often carry the limited view in our heads about our learning abilities and I hope to help them break negative expectations about their ability to do well in this program and life in general.

2. Reading fiction further develops your empathy and understanding.

Reading is often the closest thing we have to being put into someone else’s mind or to learn another’s point of view. By immersing ourselves in fiction, it helps us to stretch our mind and understand the world around us. Emphasizing the importance of empathy, I go further and explain that it’s more than just a “feel-good” emotion to connect with other people. Being able to understand and connect with other humans allows us to make better decisions, as well as present ourselves better in situations .

3. All stories are 1 story.

This seems strange, but I’ve taken tips from Thomas Foster’s How To Read Literature Like a Professor. He says all literature is telling the same story, and that story is the human condition. At the cornerstone of every story is an author attempting to convey some truth or element about what it’s like to live in this world as a human—even (and especially) when the story has no humans in it. Therefore, if all stories are about the human condition, it makes it easier to understand why there is so much literature and why we can interweave all the readings in the program.

4. All stories are a mystery.

No matter the genre, all stories are a mystery. The mystery is determining where the author is leading the reader and why. I encourage participants to think about the stories in this way because just like an advertisement, the author is trying to sell us something. Instead of selling us products, they are selling us ideas and we want to be quite aware of what we are being sold. To do that, we have to be constantly reading and questioning the story.

This also comes from Foster and his discussion of intentionality in literature. I explain to the participants that nothing in a piece of literature is an accident. When bad things happen, they didn’t happen accidentally. The author chose it to happen, and in choosing things to happen, he or she is communicating something about the story’s purpose. Dying of heart disease is different from being crushed to death by a piano, which is different from being struck by lightning. Each might tell us something different about a character and his or her role in the story.

5. Anticipate the story.

I am constantly trying to guess what is going to happen next and I’m wrong at least 75% of the time. I tell the participants this so that they understand that the guessing game in literature often goes wrong, even for people well-versed in literature. Getting it right isn’t the goal—continuing to guess is. The guessing means that the reader is thinking, projecting, and ultimately, immersed in the story enough to want to think about where it is going. It means the reader will get more out of the story.

6. Read the Intro sheet.

For each reading, I provide an introductory sheet that identifies the author (often a picture too), publication information, trivia, some background about the author or writing, other good pieces by the author, and other authors that readers might enjoy if they liked this story. Most importantly though, I include an essential question. The question is vague enough that it doesn’t give away much about the plot, but specific enough that readers can have it in the back of their minds while they make their way through the story. It’s a useful way to prime focus and attention so readers get the most out of the story.

7. Re-Read the story. Always.

Our first encounters with stories are usually attempts to wrap our heads around the plot. If we want to get more (and for a program like this, getting more is beneficial), then re-reading is useful. It’s also good because we pick up things that we missed and it can help to clarify things that we were confused by.

8. Read aloud.

We are much better listeners than we are readers. In part, that’s because we have been listening more often and longer than we have been reading. Reading a text can be challenging in many ways but one way to make it easier is to read it aloud. This doesn’t mean standing up on a table and shouting it to the masses, but it can mean mouthing the words under breath. Hearing the words can help to make sense of them in a way that otherwise might be inaccessible.

Read in an accent

It sounds strange but in addition to reading aloud, it might be useful to read in an accent. Adding an accent (I often like English), can provide an element of tone that can provide additional meaning to the text that reading flatly might not produce. Furthermore, by adding an accent, it requires more attention and thus reinforces the content in a reader’s mind.

10. NARPH! Notate, Actively Read, Paraphrase, Highlight.

I often reiterate the importance of physically interacting with a text. Doing so makes the reader a more engaged reader and allows for the reading to stick longer in his or her head. Additionally, it means when the reader re-reads or comes to the meeting, he or she can more easily move through the reading with clear markings around things that are of interest or importance.

That’s my tip sheet for participants! What kinds of tips do you provide to your participants? What would you add from this list? What would you borrow?

Lance Eaton is an instructional designer at North Shore Community College, where he also teaches courses in American Literature, popular culture, and comics. He writes for several magazines and websites. He also serves as a social media consultant for several companies. His musings, reflections, and ramblings can be found at his blog. You can find out more about him on his website.

A call for change

by Marissa Matton

With 2.4 million inmates, the United States has the highest prison population of the world. Behind only Seychelles, we also have the second highest incarceration rate. The United States makes up only five percent of the world’s population, yet we have twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners. These are alarming statistics, but what do they really mean for our nation?

As a nation, we’re led to believe that people who break laws are bad and should be put behind bars. We never consider much past that– how long they should be in prison, where the money comes from, what happens to the prisoners after they’re released.

The sad fact about released prisoners is that the majority of them are incarcerated again. A study showed that 62.5% of released prisoners were convicted of another crime after being released from prison. Two-thirds of them committed another crime within just one year of their release.

What good is a prison sentence if an inmate is going to repeat the same actions upon release? You’ve only temporarily delayed new crimes from being committed. Shouldn’t our nation be aiming for a higher goal? Isn’t prevention what we should be targeting? The United States prison system is severely suffering when it comes to reforming inmates.

A prison sentence alone is not enough to keep a prisoner from committing future offenses. This fact is abundantly clear when juvenile detentions are taken into consideration. A study of Chicago youth incarceration showed that young offenders were sixty-seven percent more likely to be in jail again by the age of twenty-five. What’s even worse, is that they were more likely to commit violent crimes, including homicide.

On average, it costs twenty-four thousand dollars per inmate per year. Billions are spent on incarceration every year. The billions of dollars that go into keeping these prisons not full but overcrowded would be better spent on alternative sentencing programs.

Changing Lives Through Literature is an excellent example of a program that truly works. A study showed that less than fifty percent of graduates committed a new offense after completing the program. Why is this program so more effective than incarceration alone? Students in the program  are are learning hands-on in the classroom, gaining the tools necessary to reevaluate their decisions and change their perspectives.

Locking away everyone who breaks the law is not only not possible, but also not feasible. We need to recognize the issues associated with the prison system, and just as the Changing Lives Through Literature students learn to change their perspectives, we need to as well. Alternative sentencing programs overall produce better results than prison sentences and are often less expensive. This is the direction we need to head towards, instead of relying on prison sentences.

Inmate violations at halfway houses

This article, previously published on Oklahoma Watch, discusses inmate violations at two of Oklahoma’s halfway houses, citing issues including the admittance qualifications and staff oversights. With issues like this prevalent across the country, there is a definite need for a change in the way the justice system responds to criminal offenders.

Questions of oversight: inmate violations at halfway houses
by Clifton Adcock

Serious violations by inmates plagued Oklahoma’s two largest halfway houses for three years before the state took action in January by removing all inmates from one and later demanding a corrective plan at the other.

State data analyzed by Oklahoma Watchshow that from 2010 to 2013, the rates of serious “misconducts” by male offenders quadrupled at the Avalon Correctional Center in Tulsa, run by a for-profit company, Avalon Correctional Services Inc. After a video of an alleged guard-sanctioned fight there came to light in January, the Department of Corrections pulled out all 212 inmates.

Ten months later, more than 200 inmates again are in the facility.

Violations also spiked at the Carver Transitional Center in Oklahoma City, also operated by Avalon. The rate of serious misconducts nearly tripled from 2010 to 2012 before slipping last year. In March, the corrections department gave surprise random drug tests to 153 Carver inmates, and more than half tested positive. The state ordered an action plan to fix the problem, and since has added offenders to the facility.

A prison watchdog group, OK-CURE, questions whether the state Department of Corrections should place so many inmates in Avalon-run facilities given the history of oversight problems. Avalon Correctional Services, based in Oklahoma City, now houses more inmates in its two male halfway houses than it did two years ago, when serious violations were climbing.

Corrections Director Robert Patton said Avalon has taken steps to address concerns of oversight at Avalon Tulsa and is paying for a corrections department monitor to stay at the facility. The department also is monitoring the Carver facility, corrections officials said.

Preliminary data show that in recent months serious violations by inmates have dropped at the Carver and Avalon Tulsa halfway houses.

A big reason the state wants to reduce violations, such as drug use, at halfway houses is because the rise in serious misconducts has hampered the state’s ability to shift more inmates from overcrowded prisons to halfway houses, Board of Corrections minutes show. Inmates with egregious violations are usually moved back to higher security levels, taking up beds that might be filled by other inmates eligible to be gradually moved down into halfway houses.

To ease the problem, the state earlier his year revised its policies to expand the pool of offenders eligible for placement in halfway houses.

A Surge in Violations

The goal of halfway houses is to help nonviolent offenders near the end of their sentences find a job and prepare for life outside of prison walls.

Oklahoma has eight male halfway houses holding about 1,050 inmates. Avalon operates the two largest facilities in addition to running the largest female halfway house, located in Turley. (Lawsuits filed earlier this year allege problems there, including a failure to report sexual abuse.)

Inmates live at the facilities and can leave for a job or to find work or attend church; halfway house staff members are supposed to track their whereabouts. Drug tests are also given to the inmates.

When halfway house inmates violate rules or laws, they are subject to discipline. They can be removed and returned to a higher-security facility and, until recently, were ineligible for halfway-house placement again for at least a year.

With serious violations, called “Class X Misconducts,” offenders are almost always removed and rarely, if ever, returned to a halfway house, corrections officials said. Examples of Class-X violations are escape, possession of drugs or a weapon, and assault of staff members.

In 2011, serious violations began to rise sharply, driven largely by increased numbers and rates of violations at Carver and Avalon Tulsa. Many of the violations were possession of an unauthorized substance and escape. From 2010 to 2013, the annual number of egregious misconducts at Avalon Tulsa more than doubled, to 48; the rate, meaning the number of violations per 100 placements, quadrupled, analysis of data shows. At Carver, the number of Class-X violations more than doubled in 2011, to 49, and the rate more than doubled; the rate and numbers at Carver dropped in 2013.

Empty Beds

From 2011 to 2013, the total number of inmates placed in Oklahoma halfway houses declined by nearly 30 percent. Late last year, more than 380 halfway house beds under contract were not being used, Board of Corrections minutes show.

Read the article in its entirety on oklahomawatch.org

The two moments you know they’ve succeeded

by Lance Eaton

I’m a newbie to Changing Lives Through Literature, so what I say here might seem old-hat to some or naive to others. I’m about two-thirds through my second group and there are two moments in the program that I find most rewarding.

I choose a mixture of challenging and strange texts. There’s a method to my madness in terms of the range and type, as well as the alignment, but I often get raised eyebrows from the participants and even the parole officers. The texts are evocative, usually leading the participants to come in with clear opinions. These opinions are usually a mixture of confusion, frustration, and dislike because the readings don’t always have clear endings and are sometimes outright confusing.

As participants enter, they’re often ready to engage with the story, sometimes venting before the meeting starts. They want answers to what they just experienced, which is always great to see. You know you’ve chosen a good text if you have to encourage them to refrain from discussing it too early.

The first moment of success is towards the end of the session. After spending nearly two hours discussing the text, the tide turns. Frustration and confusion give way to excitement and enthusiasm. Opinions move from disliking to liking, or at least a better appreciation of the story. It’s worth doing a quick poll at the beginning and at the end about participants’ feelings on the story to see what has changed.

It’s the change of opinion and thought about the story that I think is most important because it’s the best indicator of their learning and investment in the process. The program’s charge to change lives is generated by learning, which happens when there is investment. However, the program (rightfully) doesn’t require any more than participation: read, show up, discuss. This formula in itself doesn’t guarantee learning. We’ve all met on rare occasions the person who resists learning and performs the bare minimum. But overwhelmingly, the participants do so much more. Therefore, any change of opinions and thoughts becomes an indicator of their investment and their learning, which sets them down the path of changing their lives.

The second moment of success happens sometime past the half-way mark in the program. By this point, a sense of rhythm and expectation has been established. Participants know what to expect of the facilitator and the facilitator is familiar with the rhythm of the meetings. It’s usually around this point that the participants start to make the observation that the readings are “easier”. It becomes clear that they’re picking up on more ideas and significance within the stories. It’s usually around this time that I start to hear lines like, “This was easy” or “I knew what was going to happen after that first sentence”.

I mark this as success because the readings themselves don’t necessarily get easier. In fact, I often choose increasingly harder texts, recognizing that with the flow established, they’ll begin to feel more comfortable with more difficult texts. This comfort stems from knowing we will clarify things they don’t understand. However, their remarks indicate they’re developing stronger reading and analytical skills. They often overlook this but I take the time to draw out the point. When I do, I see not only smiles about the fact, but also realizations about their own abilities. It’s a great moment for facilitator and participant. It’s the crux of why we’re all sitting in the room, and it’s proof positive that their lives have value and meaning and that they have some control over it.

These two moments are part of the major reason I enjoy Changing Lives Through Literature. I don’t believe that the program directly produces grand change in every participants’ lives. But I believe the nature of the program does set them down the path of learning, self-reflection, and inner-value, which can change their lives in the long run.

Lance Eaton is an instructional designer at North Shore Community College, where he also teaches courses in American Literature, popular culture, and comics. He writes for several magazines and websites. He also serves as a social media consultant for several companies. His musings, reflections, and ramblings can be found at his blog or you can find out more about him on his website.

Hello, readers!

As the new editor, I wanted to take the time to properly introduce myself. My name is Marissa Matton and I will be in charge of the content for this blog until the end of the Spring 2015 semester.

I am in my first year of the Professional Writing Program at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. I graduated last spring from UMass Dartmouth with a bachelor’s degree in Writing, Communication & Rhetoric and minor in Literature & Criticism. I have worked in the field of web writing for the past year, and I look forward to this new position.

With your help, my goal for this year is to produce articles on a regular basis. I am eager to work with previous guest writers and I hope to see new writers as well. I encourage any readers who may not think of themselves as writers to try their hand at writing a piece or to contribute by actively commenting.

We are accepting submissions. If you’re interested in writing an entry, please read our guidelines and contact us at cltl@umassd.edu. I look forward to your comments, submissions, and questions!

– Marissa

Could Writing Your Own Story Help You Sort Out Problems?

By Ken Myers

Many people will use literature in order to find solutions to real life problems. Stories involving similar situations have a way of lending insight to problems we face on a daily basis. For those who are unable to adjust to social changes or opposition, reading about them has a way of making emotional and mental connections. Along with reading about these circumstances, could writing your own story help you develop a deeper connection to how you can resolve problems in a healthy way?

First-Person Narrative - Writing in the first person provides the reader with a sense that the story is being told from the individual experiencing the problems. When you read your own material based on true situations, you step outside of yourself and gain a different perspective of your own thoughts. Even if you change the names and places in order to protect others, the entire experience could create understanding beyond what someone else can try to explain to you. Not only are you processing the information from your own point of view, you can then examine yourself as the narrator for the story.

Third-Person Storytelling - One of the most common methods of writing is the use of a third-person point of view. This is when you are telling the story of someone else. This can help you in the same method as mentioned in first-person as you are constructing the story based on your own experiences. Using this method of writing can disassociate you from the situation. However, reading over your own work can put things into perspective based on what your characters perceive. How would each person in your story react to the actions your main character has committed? Are you able to put yourself in their shoes in this manner?

Character Development - One of the hardest parts about writing your story as a form of therapy is the understanding of human emotions within others. You need to have a sense of empathy in order to really give your characters life. While you may think this is absurd, it can greatly help you comprehend the consequences of your actions. Your behavior impacts more than just yourself. Each time you make a decision, everyone around you is affected – and more consequential actions could involve the people around those individuals. It could be a detailed interconnecting web that can alter the lifestyle of so many people.

Honesty - Another difficult aspect of writing your story is the ability to be honest with yourself. You can lie to others if you wish, but you can never lie to yourself. Writing your story in an honest method is the only way to really connect to the issues and make progress towards sorting out your problems. It takes a great deal of courage in order to look inside oneself and realize the problems he or she has. You are the only one that can truly sort out what is going on inside yourself. As long as you are honest with yourself, you could gain a great deal of wisdom to help overcome virtually any situation.

Many people will keep journals of their lives in order to express their emotions about situations throughout any given day. It is one thing to describe a day in this manner, but it’s completely different when you’re telling a tale with a solid plot that you need to address. Even if you don’t plan on showing your writing to everyone, at least keep it for yourself to help reflect on problems you face throughout your life.

 

Ken Myers is a father, husband, and entrepreneur. He has combined his passion for helping families find in-home care with his experience to build a business. Learn more about him by visiting @KenneyMyers on Twitter.

CLTL Featured on “Writers Who Kill” Blog

The following was written by Shari Randall for the “Writers Who Kill” blog.

By Shari Randall

Can a paperback copy of Russell Banks’ The Sweet Hereafter do what jail cannot – change an offender’s life for the better?
Readers know that books can take us to other worlds, provide entertainment, information, insight, solace. Now there is evidence that literature can also transform the lives of people in the justice system.
Seasonal Wanderer

Seasonal Wanderer

The Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL) program was created in 1991 by UMass-Dartmouth professor Robert Waxler and his friend, Bob Kane, a judge. Kane was fed up with a “turnstile” justice system that saw the same people commit the same crimes as soon as they walked out the jail door. Waxler was determined to test his belief in the power of literature to reach places inside the minds and hearts of offenders where real change could take place. New studies support Waxler’s hypothesis, showing that among other things, reading helps develop empathy, and that increased empathy can lead to changes in behavior.

The original CLTL program included eight men who had 145 convictions, many of them felony convictions. Waxler wanted to test his program with “tough guys” who would prove that he hadn’t stacked the deck with more highly educated, less dangerous participants. At the end of the program, the tough guys’ recidivism rate was only 19 percent, compared to 45 percent for the general prison population. The results were impressive, but Waxler said that the statistics were not what interested him. He knew the program was working when one young drug dealer told him of his excitement at reading Jack London’sSea Wolf, and how his newfound love of books led him to start reading to his three-year-old daughter.
How does CLTL work? Offenders serve part of their sentence by meeting in small groups to discuss books such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X or Just Listen by Sarah Dessen. These and the other books chosen for the program have characters that face serious choices and issues. The most unique part of CLTL is the participation of members of the legal and law enforcement communities. Participants could find themselves talking about Langston Hughes’ poems with a judge or a probation officer, and a college professor facilitator. By sitting around a table, listening to each other, participants feel valued for their ideas, not judged for their crimes. Participants see each other as human beings, not as statistics or faceless uniforms.
CLTL programs are in place in 14 states and have been adopted in the UK. One longitudinal study of 600 CLTL participants in Massachusetts showed a 60 percent drop in recidivism for those who completed the program and a 16 percent drop for those who did not. In cases where participants reoffended, there was a significant drop in the number and severity of the type of crime committed. These are better results than many more expensive programs, and the program has been particularly effective for juvenile offenders.
With U. S. Bureau of Justice statistics stating that prisoners cost U. S. taxpayers more than $70 billion  and the New York Times reporting that 1 in 100 Americans are currently or have been in the criminal justice system, we need ideas and programs like CLTL.
Compare $70 billion to the cost of a box of paperback books, a facilitator, and an hour a week around a table in a library.
As the CLTL webpage states, literature has the power to transform. Yet, one article I read stated that CLTL has been a “hard sell” to government officials, who doubt the effectiveness of a literature based program.
You have to wonder. Why would states prefer to spend billions on jails instead of buying a few boxes of books?
Is there a book that changed your life?

 

Three Works of Fiction That Will Change Your Life

By Michaela Jorgensen
Literature and the human condition have a relationship that began with the genre’s founding. A single work’s ability to resonate in our thoughts, inform our actions, and shape our lives is a global phenomenon intrinsically developed through the evolution of storytelling, that has been honed into an exceptional tool in the novel. As fiction pertains to the human condition, many of its finest examples explore mankind’s darkest qualities, willing readers to step farther into a darkness that plagues the psyche. The greatest questions posed by the novel demand to be answered. And once we comprehend the work’s implications, we are subsequently altered for our efforts. If you have not read the works below, consider placing them on your reading list. While unrelenting, they may change your life.

Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Yale Law Library

Yale Law Library

Set in Russia during the late 1800s during an economic and social crisis, Crime and Punishment examines the importance of morality in a climate where the law’s influences have faded. Raskolnikov, the protagonist, commits a horrific crime in the hopes of proving, to himself, his country’s laws are not applicable in a moral sense. After his heinous crime, Raskolnikov searches for redemption, which he eventually finds in Sonya, a young prostitute, who he confides in. It is a dark tale, but one with a powerful message: a man or woman cannot simply do whatever they wish without consequences. It is not a story without redemption, however. Even as Raskolnikov suffers, he finds eventual peace in confession and imprisonment.

 

 

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad

Abhi Sharma

Abhi Sharma

On the surface, it may seem merely a cruel tale. However, Heart of Darkness flourishes in its understanding of man’s many faults while exploring the horrors that accompany leadership. Marlow begins an excursion in an African jungle where he is greeted by a cast of characters who have abandoned civility in favor of survival-based methods of living. Marlow must confront Kurtz, a man who manages a dock in the jungle and inexplicably governs the nearby tribe with a ruthless, Machiavellian style of leadership. While potentially problematic due to several racist themes, Heart of Darkness unabashedly delves into the horrific nature of a man’s will to survive in the harshest physical and emotional conditions, and leaves the reader with an unnerving question: What, precisely, would you have done in the heart of darkness?

The Road, Cormac McCarthy
The most recently written novel on this list, The Road is nevertheless a captivating bridge between literature and the human condition. Set in the increasingly popular post-apocalyptic wasteland of the United States, the story follows the trials of the man and the boy, archetypal representations of a protective father and his meek, naive son. A unique study of the individual, where the man is realized as a survivor first and foremost, the man holds onto ideals of the world before, but does not utilize them. Unbeknownst to himself, the man has abandoned his country’s laws and has reverted to a more primal state. After realizing his change, the man, and the reader, try to cope with a lawless reality and an existence where the individual is truly responsible for his or her own actions.

The prevalence of the disturbed permeates in these novels, but their messages are important, and they grasp at the reasons for laws, normalcy, and the nature of the human condition. These are novels that ascend the passage of time and strike at the very notions of what it means to be human.
Michaela Jorgensen is an English teacher that writes all about the creative arts and education. Her recent work is on the Top 10 Online Colleges for aspiring teachers.

Les Miserables and the Criminal Justice System

By Joe Suhre

If you love literature, may I suggest you read the unabridged English translation of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo—yes, all 1500 pages; that is unless you want to skip the fifty plus pages describing, in oozing detail, the extensive French sewer system. The work is a tour de force of literature, reflecting the optimistic 19th Century view of redemption and the social struggle between justice and mercy.

Although the setting for Les Miserables is early 19th Century France, its message is timeless. It connects with the reader on a primal level; holds up a mirror and says, “This is who you are.” Change the time and the setting and the entire novel could take place in present-day Chicago.

dockedship

dockedship

The modern courtroom

In my criminal defense firm and in my interactions with prosecutors and judges, I encounter different variations of Javert, Jean Valjean, and Bishop Myriel every day. Victor Hugo’s characters seem alive and well.

I often represent Jean Valjean in court. I glance over at the prosecutor. I know him. He is Javert. I have a struggle on my hands. I look at the judge. She is a Bishop Myriel. Despite everything she has seen, she hasn’t lost faith in humanity. She wants to extend mercy but a congress of Javerts has tied her hands with mandatory sentences. The police arrested my client for allegedly “stealing a loaf of bread.” Now he could face ten years in prison without parole.

Verbal shorthand

I like it when I know people who have read Les Miserables. I am able to describe the criminal justice system with just a few words. For instance, if you haven’t read Les Miserables, the above paragraph might seem like gibberish.

Part of the reason I think I see Javert so often in my work is in the designation, “Criminal Justice System.” Otherwise, it might be the “Criminal Mercy and Rehabilitation System.”

Javert against drinking and driving

One area of law that sometimes feels like it has been hijacked by Javert, is DUI law. From the initial stop to the automatic suspension of your license and arraignment, the stern face of Javert is there to greet you. Forget the fact that you are innocent. If you were arrested, you must be guilty.

I sometimes try to explain the typical DUI stop to people in a way that allows them to understand how questionable that procedure actually is. I find that Jean Valjean’s statement in defense of Champmathieu actually describes a DUI stop quite well.

 “If I speak, I am condemned.

If I stay silent, I am damned!”

The crucible of humanity

 I believe two places where humanity comes face to face with itself are the battlefield and in the courtroom. I haven’t been on a battlefield but I often find myself fighting a real war against people who are screaming justice, when mercy may be the solution.

The value of literature like Les Miserables is that it allows people to see the world differently. The criminal justice system, as I mentioned above, is a stage where humanity reveals its true self. I am front row center to the future of our race. Great literature, whether it was written 200 years ago or yesterday, will help shape that future; but only if we open a book or at least download it to our iPad and read it.

If we continue to allow our time to read great literature give way to video games and action movies, future generations may find themselves in a state of moral confusion akin to Javert looking down at the river Seine. If you don’t know what I mean by that, I know a good book you can read.

Victor Hugo himself stated,

“So long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Miserables cannot fail to be of use.”

 

Joe Suhre is a DUI attorney and principal of Suhre & Associates in Chicago, IL. He received a Criminal Justice degree from Xavier University and worked for 6 years as an auxiliary police officer. He later received his Juris Doctorate from the University of Cincinnati.