Gillian is an Academic Librarian at the University of Northampton, supporting the students and staff in the Faculty of Health and Society.
I was inspired to write this blog post by an article from the BBC news website that my friend sent me (BBC, 2019). A reading list was used as a punishment for teenagers who were convicted of daubing graffiti across a historically significant building in the state of Virginia, USA. Normally such an offence would earn a community service order. In this case, due to the nature of the crime – using racially charged symbols and words, the Prosecutor and Deputy Commonwealth Attorney Alejandra Rueda decided education may be the cure. She provided the five teenagers with a reading list that they had to read, and write assignments on, over the course of their 12-month sentence.
“Ignorance is not an excuse” is a principle expressed regularly throughout society, yet are we doing anything to address or dispel this ignorance? Rueda realised that books may help these teenagers to understand the impact of what they’d done and the symbols and language they had used in the graffiti. She chose books that would help educate them about racism, anti-Semitism, apartheid and slavery, to name just a few of the topics covered in the reading list. These were the books that helped her understand the wider world, as she grew up. Rueda’s approach indicated that punishment without an understanding of the impact of their crime, would not help these teenagers to engage with the world around them. These books would take them to worlds far outside their own and introduce them to experiences that were barely covered in their High School history lessons.
It’s not the only time an ignorance of history has been highlighted in the news recently. A premiere league football player was investigated for apparently making a Nazi salute. Although he was found not guilty, the FA investigation found him to be appallingly ignorant of Fascism and Hitler’s impact on millions of people across the globe (Church, 2019). Whilst the FA lamented his ignorance, I’m unsure they have done anything to help him address it. Would he be willing to read about the Holocaust and impact of Fascism in Europe? Would being forced to read about the lives of people over 70 years ago, help him understand how a chance photograph can affect people?
Should reading be a punishment, would it help people understand the impact of their actions? As a Librarian, people often assume that all I do all day is read. For me, reading is a luxury I indulge in daily, when I’m at home. I find a distinct difference between reading by choice, for escapism, and reading because you have to. I remember studying English Literature at school and finding any books I was forced to read, quickly lost their charm and became a chore rather than a pleasure. I’m not sure reading should be a punishment; it could disengage people from the joy and escapism of a good book. However, I understand the value of reading in helping people to explore topics and ideas that may be well outside their own world.
There is a growing body of literature that reflects on bibliotherapy and how reading can help people in varying stages of their life (Hilhorst et al., 2018; Brewster et al., 2013). A recent report by Hilhorst et al., (2018) advocates reading to transform British society, address isolation and improve social mobility. I believe reading can help improve our quality of life, helping us improve literacy, understand complex social issues and offer escapism from the everyday. However, I hesitate to view reading as a magical solution to society’s problems. Some people advocate the literary classics, the numerous lists you can find online that extort the virtues of reading the finest of the literary canon – but how much of it is just to conform to the social snobbery around reading ‘good literature’, a tick list? We should encourage reading, not force it upon people (McCrum, 2003; Penguin Books Ltd, 2019; Sherman, 2019).
Reading can help expand horizons and can have a tremendous impact on your world view, but it shouldn’t be a punishment. What Rueda did in Virginia, is illustrate how an education can help us address the ignorance in our society. We should encourage people to explore beyond their community to understand the world around us. Reading books can offer an insight and allow us to explore these ideas, hopefully helping us to avoid repeating or perpetuating the mistakes of the past.
BBC (2019) Graffiti punished by reading – ‘It worked!’ says prosecutor, BBC News [Online]. Available from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/stories-47936071 [Accessed 18/04/19].
Brewster, L., Sen, B. and Cox, A. (2013) ‘Mind the Gap: Do Librarians Understand Service User Perspectives on Bibliotherapy?’, Library Trends, 61(3), pp. 569–586. doi: 10.1353/lib.2013.0001.
Church, B. (2019) Wayne Hennessey: EPL player showed ‘lamentable’ ignorance of Fascism, CNN [Online]. Available from: https://edition.cnn.com/2019/04/16/football/wayne-hennessey-fa-nazi-salute-english-premier-league-crystal-palace-spt-intl/index.html [Accessed 18/04/19].
Hilhorst, S., Lockey, A. and Speight, T. (2018) “It’s no exaggeration to say that reading can transform British society…”: A Society of Readers, DEMOS [online] Available from: http://giveabook.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/11/A_Society_of_Readers_-_Formatted__3_.pdf [Accessed 15/04/19]
McCrum, R. (2003) The 100 greatest novels of all time: The list, The Guardian [Online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/oct/12/features.fiction [Accessed 18/04/19].
Penguin Books Ltd (2019) 100 must-read classic books, as chosen by our readers, Penguin [Online]. Available from: https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/2018/100-must-read-classic-books/ [Accessed 18/04/19].
Sherman, S. (2019) The Greatest Books, The Greatest Books [Online]. Available from: https://thegreatestbooks.org/ [Accessed 18/04/19].