Reading Sentences

Angelique Richardson

On 31 August at Leicester Crown Court, Judge Timothy Spencer handed down a two-year suspended sentence to Ben John, a 21-year-old student, for possessing information likely to be useful to a terrorist. He had downloaded bomb-making instructions along with 67,788 documents containing white supremacist and antisemitic material. Judge Spencer ordered John to read Dickens, Austen and Shakespeare, and also to think about Hardy and Trollope, returning to court every four months to be tested on his reading. For one commenter on the Mail Online, it was ‘worse than a prison sentence!’

The Telegraph and Guardian both expressed concern about the sentence. The campaign group Hope not Hate, among others, appealed against undue leniency, ruling the ruling obscene. The attorney general last week referred it to the Court of Appeal. Whether the sentence is thought to be too liberal, because it keeps John out of jail, or to be itself racist, because the recommended authors are all white, the judge has been roundly disparaged.

The sentence presents a specific challenge to those on the left who believe in the power of education to change minds and lives but who also know that the reading list is narrow. Some media reports have implied that Judge Spencer may be keen to keep only privileged white supremacists out of jail. Last year, however, he gave a suspended sentence to a burglar without the advantages of John’s university education, on condition he looked for work and stayed off drugs. In 2017, giving a suspended sentence to a Manchester United fan who had intimidated a witness, he explained that the witness had a job to do, just like Marcus Rashford or David De Gea. ‘We could go through the whole team,’ he said. But he didn’t. His choice of a black player and (following a post-referendum spike in Europhobia) a Spanish one deflates the accusations of racism levelled at him for his more recent sentencing.

Many of Judge Spencer’s sternest critics would, in other contexts, be lobbying for prison reform or abolition rather than harsher sentences, and with good reason. Almost everyone who ends up in prison does so because somewhere along the line they have been failed – by systems and by people. Some high-risk prisoners will, exceptionally, never be released into the wider community for reasons of public protection. The brutalising effect of prisons isn’t an inevitable argument for their abolition but it is an unanswerable one for reform.

Alternatives to prison have long been articulated in the UK, the US and elsewhere. There are sufficient reasons on grounds of race or sex alone. As many as 95 per cent of children (16,000) affected by maternal imprisonment in England and Wales are forced to leave their homes. Black Britons make up 3 per cent of the general population, but 12 per cent of adult prisoners and more than 25 per cent of children in custody.

The idea of the irredeemable criminal gained ground in the 1860s, intensified by emergent eugenic views and an increased emphasis on punishment. A left that finds itself agreeing, for whatever reasons, with this fundamentally right-wing perspective, even in relation to a right-wing criminal, might think again.

As recently as 2014 the UK government set out to prevent prisoners from receiving books. The judiciary intervened, seeing ‘no good reason’ to restrict access, but personal testimony suggests that the book ban, instigated by Chris Grayling, is still in place. It has a long and transatlantic history. William Joseph Snelling, who wrote The Rat-Trap, Or, Cogitations of a Convict in the House of Correction (1837), declared the prohibition of books in a Boston jail (along with letters and papers) to be ‘abominable’. In 1876, the New York Prison Association published its Catalogue and Rules for Prison Libraries. David Copperfield and Little Dorrit were thought most suitable, along with Trollope and Julia Ward Howe.A recent list of more than ten thousand books banned in Texas jails includes work by Alice Walker, John Updike, George Orwell and Joyce Carol Oates. Officials at an Ohio jail banned a biology textbook. The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander (2010) and Race Matters by Cornel West (1993) are often outlawed.

Academics in the humanities can be curiously reluctant to lend credence to the idea that books can change you. Perhaps it starts to sound a bit Leavisite in its appeal to morality, though it doesn’t compare with today’s spirals of ideological purity. Besides, the judge’s list has Hardy, the anti-imperialist son of a builder and a domestic servant, to recommend it. Leavis cut Hardy from his Great Tradition (1948), and he has barely made it into newspaper coverage of John’s case, but hunger, homelessness and political activism run through his work. Dickens, for all his championing of domestic social justice, came out in support of Governor Eyre’s authorisation of the killing of 439 unarmed men, women and children in Jamaica. Leavis came to accommodate him.

Sarah Martin, the Prison Visitor of Great Yarmouth: With Extracts from her Writings and Prison Journals (c.1847) records five boys at Great Yarmouth House of Correction being presented with illustrated moral tracts and fables, and responding: ‘Oh, what beautiful books!’ Convicted of breaking a shop window, stealing chickens and absconding from a spinning apprenticeship, by adulthood they had ceased offending. The correlation between education in prison and reduced reoffending rates is well established. But as an ideological commitment to hereditarianism, often driven by racism, increased during the second half of the century, so the belief in the value of reading – which forms part of nurture, not nature – declined.

It isn’t difficult to find former criminals who are less cautious about the value of books than academics often are. Erwin James, who served twenty years for murder, observes that ‘reading can change the way you think about life’. Reading groups where, in the words of one prisoner, ‘you don’t always know what you are supposed to think,’ bring particular benefits. What has happened to books in prisons, and to funding for academics to work long-term in prisons, when 50 per cent of prisoners either can’t read, or struggle to? Should schools and universities be doing more to teach – and reach – students such as Ben John, before they become isolated white supremacists?

Looking back from 1885 to the middle of the century, Edmund Du Cane, the chairman of the new Prison Commission, set up to bring prisons in line with a harsh new penal regime, had mockingly observed that hard, heavy labour had been forbidden ‘in order that whole attention might be devoted to literature – the establishment was a criminal university, and acquired the name of the “read-read-Reading Gaol”.’ By 1862 stone breaking had replaced reading, as Oscar Wilde recorded in ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’, though some learning was retained.

As for Judge Spencer’s reading list, it may be more helpful for questioning white supremacy than his critics seem to think. But then, ideological commitment can produce blindspots: decolonising can slip into, or be co-opted by, corporate capitalism or an authoritarianism that ends up centring whiteness. Hardy had a fair bit to say that is internationalist and anti-racist, and in 1918 wrote scathingly of ‘western “civilisation”’. He challenged the late Victorian criminalisation of poverty, biologistic and essentialised notions of criminality, and essentialism more generally (some of his women do the work of men, better than men, and he advised one of his friends that she take up plumbing, ‘plumbers being the most expensive workmen of any’). As for Shakespeare, several of his plays explore the othering of strangersand questions of racism.

What Austen has to say about enslavement is not to be dismissed. In Mansfield Park, Fanny Price (who is working-class) has this conversation with her cousin Edmund:

‘Did not you hear me ask him about the slave-trade last night?’
‘I did – and was in hopes the question would be followed up by others. It would have pleased your uncle to be inquired of farther.’
‘I longed to do it – but there was such a dead silence!’

It is open to discussion – and worth discussing – whether Mansfield Park blithely seeks to maintain and entrench the racial, social and economic injustices on which Mansfield Park is founded, or offers a challenge to them. But is there a risk, in the context of academic ‘no debate’, of new silences two centuries later?

The judge’s list may be limited, but it is not hopelessly so. There is little that is all good, or all bad. In the short term, though, the psychoanalytic process of splitting makes things easier, presenting us with simplistic choices as a means of (and defence against) coping with complexity. It is the root of all binary thinking. Literature provides a space for exploring ambivalence and ambiguity, but a bifurcating media culture increasingly places us either in intense opposition to or bonded identification with a person or position.

Radicalisation needs to be looked at in relation to the algorithmic aggregation of online populations (including isolated individuals, which many of them are). Hostility, division and enmity generate clicks. And clicks generate capital.

Books draw you into imaginative worlds; social media draw you into their annihilation, pushing you into groups, or positions, predicated on binary exclusions (even in the name of inclusion). This is the antithesis of entering into empathetic identification with someone not you, who may be like you, or not like you, or both.


  • 5 October 2021 at 9:24am
    C Burdett says:
    A thought-provoking and timely piece that challenges us to think harder, to understand the extraordinary attraction of binary thinking precisely in order to resist it and create space for something else. History is evidence of the damage such thinking produces.

  • 5 October 2021 at 2:38pm
    Thomas Karshan says:
    Great piece

  • 5 October 2021 at 3:19pm
    Anne Emerson hall says:
    We might also consider binary thinking as dividing issues into “black and white”. Reading written works with more depth than social media provide reveals “shades of grey.”

  • 5 October 2021 at 4:11pm
    Rowena Hiscox says:
    There's about as much evidence for the view that literature promotes empathy and open-mindedness as there is for the myth, cherished by many on the Right, that traditional team sports build character. Both beliefs endure because many people badly want them to be true. They're also perfectly designed for an age where nothing is ever valued for itself, but only in so far as it promotes the right qualities or the correct values (or, worse, enables people to show off their belief in the correct values).

    Not that there's anything new about that. For example, writers of children's books have always sought to teach moral lessons to their readers. The difference is that whereas once, such books taught children to be Good, now they teach them to be Acceptable. In an age when most people don't do much – at least, not much that has any meaning beyond maintaining the circulation of money – it's more important to think and say the right things than it is to do the right things.

  • 5 October 2021 at 4:15pm
    staberinde says:
    A really nice piece. I was heartened to see a judge being creative in his sentencing rather than imposing textbook tariffs. A lot of the sniping is trying hard to turn it into a dimension of the culture war, which is disappointing, exhausting, and stupid.

  • 5 October 2021 at 7:35pm
    Eddie says:
    Wonderful piece, and quite right too. When I first read the report in the Guardian I expected the view to be taken that he was a civilised sensible judge. Little did I expect that he was being set up to be criticised. Thank you for your liberal piece.

  • 6 October 2021 at 12:27am
    TheLRBisGoodForYou says:
    Currently prisoners in the UK are getting no or very little education at all such is the state prisons. The unreasonable and vengeful level of punishment towards prisoners can only be explained by the historic and, thus, embedded practises originating from medieval times where dungeons, chains, shackles and hangings were the usual way to deal with the convicted. Those in power seem to think the UK is still in 1200AD.
    I applaud Judge Timothy Spencer for handing down a book-reading sentence. Finally, the UK has a Judge that has moved past medieval thought.

  • 7 October 2021 at 10:24am
    Rebecca L Greene says:

  • 7 October 2021 at 11:16am
    Rod Earle says:
    Can I draw LRB readers attention to further comment on this by my colleague at The Open University, and add, as the author of the letter published in the Guardian, a former prisoner myself, and a criminologist to boot, that I have more reasons than most for rejecting the viability of prison as a vehicle for rehabilitation. Education in prison stirs the liberal imagination, as Angelique mentions, and if readers are interested they might like to read the article about the Open University’s extraordinary work in prisons over the last 50 years, in an open access article in the Journal of Prison Education and Reentry. But perhaps that’s enough self promotion for now.

  • 8 October 2021 at 9:52am
    OldScrounger says:
    The judge's list omitted Sue Townsend. Accessible to all. Supremely humane.

  • 10 October 2021 at 7:42pm
    Graucho says:
    Surprised the judge didn't add Crime and Punishment to the list.

  • 12 October 2021 at 3:58pm
    Daniel Gilbert says:
    One oughtn’t to be too churlish about the author’s two cheers for the judge’s sentence, given that the reaction of many who share her political disposition when they see the words ‘white supremacist’ and ‘racist’ is to look for the nearest well into which to throw the key to an offender’s prison cell.

    Yet in her defence of reading, the author overlooks the fact that the defendant was on trial for, yes, the very act of reading (or at least acquiring reading materials). If, as the author argues, we shouldn’t deprive prisoners of reading matter, how much less should we prosecute folk in the world beyond for possessing the same?

    In his sentencing, the judge declared that he was “not of the view that harm was likely to have been caused” by the defendant. So, if there is no question of harm, what exactly was the justification for bringing the defendant to trial? Perhaps the judge, and the author of this piece, need to add John Stuart Mill to their own reading lists.

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