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Should reading be a punishment?

Carnagenyc (2009) Read!

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.

References:

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].

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A Love Letter: in praise of poetry

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,

they are vexations to the spirit.

If you compare yourself with others,

you may become vain and bitter;

for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans


(Max Ehrmann, 1927)

Last week marked International Poetry Day (21 March 2019, to be precise) and it seems only right to consider this form of narrative in more detail. When I was younger (so much younger than today)[i] poetry left me rather cold. Why read short, seemingly impenetrable bursts of language when you could read whole books? To me, it seemed as if poetry was simply lyrics that no-one had got around to putting music to.[ii] Looking back, this may have been the folly of youth, alternatively, I simply was unable at that time to see the value, the beauty of poetry, both written and spoken.

Poetry isn’t meant to be consumed whole, like fast food to be gobbled in between anything and everything else, fuel to get you through the day. Neither is like googling facts, just enough to enable you to know what you need to know at that instant. Instead, it’s meant to be savoured, to stay with you; like many good things in life, it takes time to ponder and digest. In turn, it takes on its own distinct and entirely personal meaning. It offers the opportunity for all of us, individually, to reflect, ruminate and interpret, at our own pace, according to our own place in time and space. The extract which opens this entry comes from Desiderata which carries particular resonance for me and my academic journey. It may or may not do the same for you, but it’s worth having a look at the entirety of the text, just in case.

An obvious criminological place to start to explore poetry, was always a favourite. Long before I discovered criminology, I discovered the work of Oscar Wilde (1854-1900). Starting with his novels, it wasn’t long before I stumbled upon his Ballad of Reading Gaol. With its haunting refrain; ‘each man kills the thing he loves’ it is difficult not to captured by its innate melody, as well as the story of the murderous soldier. After studying criminology and spending time in prison (albeit not serving a sentence), the verses take on a different dimension. It is difficult not to be moved by his description of the horror of the prison, even more so, given his practical experience of surviving in this hostile and unforgiving environment:


With sudden shock the prison-clock

  Smote on the shivering air,

And from all the gaol rose up a wail

  Of impotent despair,

Like the sound that frightened marshes hear

From a leper in his lair


(Oscar Wilde, 1898)

On the surface, poets like the Greek, civil servant C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933) have nothing to say about my life, yet his words make my heart ache. Cavafy’s tale of a mystical and mythical journey to Ithaka which seems to me to represent my educational journey in ways that I am only just beginning to appreciate. Replace the mythical Ithaka, with my all too real experience of doctoral study and you get the picture.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich


(C. P Cavafy, 1910/1911)

Furthermore, The Satrapy appears to represent ambition, desire and above all, the necessity of educating oneself in order to become something more. To truly realise your humanity and not just your mere existence, is a constant struggle. Cavafy’s words offer encouragement and a recognition that individual struggle is a necessity for independence of thought.

Your soul seeks other things, weeps for other things;
the praise of the public and the Sophists,
the hard-won and inestimable Well Done;
the Agora, the Theater, and the Laurels


(C. P. Cavafy, 1911)

Poets like Maya Angelou celebrate gender and race (among many other aspects), identifying intersectionality and the struggles fought and won, and the struggles still ongoing. Despite historical and contemporaneous injustice, to be able to shout from the rooftops Still I Rise in answer to the questions she poses, is truly inspirational:

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?


(Maya Angelou, 1978)

Likewise, Hollie McNish utilises her anger and frustration to powerful effect, targeting racism with the linguistic gymnastics and logic of Mathematics , demonstrating that immigration is one of the greatest things to happen in the UK. To really get the full force, you should watch the video!

Cos sometimes one that comes makes two
And sometimes one can add three more
And sometimes two times two is much much more
Than four
And most times immigrants bring more
Than minuses


(Hollie McNish, 2013).

To conclude, you have nothing to lose by immersing yourself in a bit of poetry, but everything to gain. The poets and poems above are just some of my favourites (what about Akala, Cooper Clarke,McGough, Plath, Tempest, Zephaniah, the list goes on) they may not be yours, but it doesn’t matter. Don’t rush it, read a little something and read it again. Let the words and imagery play around in your head. If it sings to you, try to remember the name and the poet, and you can return again and again. If it doesn’t sing to you, don’t lose hope, choose another poet and give their work a chance to inveigle its way into your life. I promise you, it will be worth it

Selected Bibliography

Angelou, Maya, (1978/1999), And Still I Rise, (8th ed.), (London: Virago Press)

Cavafy, C. P., (2010), Collected Poems, tr. from the Greek by Daniel Mendelsohn, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf)

Lennon, John and McCartney, Paul, (1965) Help!, [CD], Recorded by The Beatles in Help!. Parlophone, [s.l.], Apple

Wilde, Oscar, (1898), The Ballad of Reading Gaol by C. 3. 3., (London: Leonard Smithers)

[i] Lennon and McCartney, (1965).

[ii] Not always the case, as can be seen by the Arctic Monkey’s (2013) musical rendering of John Cooper Clarke’s I Wanna Be Yours


‘The Problem We All Live With’

The-problem-we-all-live-with-norman-rockwell

The title of this blog and the picture above relate to Norman Rockwell’s (1964) painting depicting Ruby Bridges on her way to school in a newly desegregated New Orleans. In over half a century, this picture has never lost its power and remains iconic.

Attending conferences, especially such a large one as the ASC, is always food for thought. The range of subjects covered, some very small and niche, others far more longstanding and seemingly intractable cause the little grey cells to go into overdrive. So much to talk about, so much to listen to, so many questions, so many ideas make the experience incredibly intense. However, education is neither exclusive to the conference meeting rooms nor the coffee shops in which academics gather but is all around. Naturally, in Atlanta, as I alluded to in my previous entry this week, reminders of the civil rights movement are all around us. Furthermore, it is clear from the boarded-up shops, large numbers of confused and disturbed people wandering the streets, others sleeping rough that many of the issues highlighted by the civil rights movement remain. Slavery and overt segregation under the Jim Crow laws may be a thing of the past, but their impact endures; the demarcation between rich and poor, Black and white is still obvious.

The message of civil rights activists is not focused on beatification; they are human beings with all their failings, but far more important and direct. To make society fairer, more just, more humane for all, we must keep moving forward, we must keep protesting and we must keep drawing attention to inequality. Although it is tempting to revere brave individuals such as Ruby Bridges, Claudette Colvin, Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X to name but a few, this is not an outcome any of them ascribed to. If we look at Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘“The Drum Major Instinct” Sermon Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church’ he makes this overt. He urges his followers not to dwell on his Nobel Peace Prize, or any of his other multitudinous awards but to remember that ‘he tried’ to end war, bring comfort to prisoners and end poverty. In his closing words, he stresses that

If I can help somebody as I pass along,
If I can cheer somebody with a word or song,
If I can show somebody he’s traveling wrong,
Then my living will not be in vain.
If I can do my duty as a Christian ought,
If I can bring salvation to a world once wrought,
If I can spread the message as the master taught,
Then my living will not be in vain.

These powerful words stress practical activism, not passive veneration. Although a staunch advocate for non-violent resistance this was never intended as passive. The fight to improve society for all is not over and done, but a continual fight for freedom. This point is made explicit by another civil rights activist (and academic) Professor Angela Davis in her text Freedom is a Constant Struggle. In this text she draws parallels across the USA, Palestine and other countries, both historical and contemporaneous, demonstrating that without protest, civil and human rights can be crushed.

Whilst ostensibly Black men, women and children can attend schools, travel on public transport, eat at restaurants and participate in all aspects of society, this does not mean that freedom for all has been achieved. The fight for civil rights as demonstrated by #blacklivesmatter and #metoo, campaigns to end LGBT, religious and disability discrimination, racism, sexism and to improve the lives of refugees, illustrate just some of the many dedicated to following in a long tradition of fighting for social justice, social equality and freedom.

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