It was Jane Austen that wrote, “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid”—and this week, a British court is testing that theory by using novels to bring a man back from, let’s say, intolerance. A 21-year-old man, caught with almost 70,000 white supremacist and terror-related documents on his computer, was found guilty of possessing information useful for preparing an act of terror. He could have been sentenced to 15 years—but instead, the judge in charge of his case ordered him to read Dickens, Austen and Shakespeare.
Ben John (the 21-year-old in question) was identified as a terror risk right after he turned 18; according to Metro’s reporting, in 2018 he was summoned to meet Prevent officers, who deradicalize youth at risk of extremism, but four months later he wrote a letter to his school that attacked immigrants, gay people and liberals. In it, John claimed to be a member of “the Lincoln Fascist Underground.” After several unsuccessful psychiatric interventions, in 2019 John copied over 11,000 right-wing and terror-related documents on his computer; seven of the documents contained instructions on how to make “devastating explosions.”
In court, John’s lawyer called John “a young man who struggled with emotions . . . capable of living a normal, pro-social life.” Judge Timothy Spencer gave John a five-year Serious Crime Prevention Order requiring him to stay in touch with the police to let them monitor his Internet usage, as well as completion of a mandatory 30-day intervention program. Then:
Judge Timothy Spencer: Do you promise me [to not research any more right-wing materials]?
Ben John: I promise.
Judge Timothy Spencer: Have you read Dickens? Austen? Start with Pride and Prejudice and Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Think about Hardy. Think about Trollope. On January 4th you will tell me what you have read and I will test you on it. I will test you and if I think you are lying to me you will suffer. I will be watching you, Ben John, every step of the way. If you let me down, you know what will happen.
Three truths to acknowledge: Prison is inhumane. Reading classic novels is a particularly out-of-left-field sentence to dole out, especially just to one guy. As Rod Earle in The Guardian points out, if John weren’t white, he probably wouldn’t be sentenced to read Austen. Spencer’s sentence isn’t totally random, though—according to various studies and clickbait articles, reading can make you happier, smarter, more creative, more attractive, and “more human”. Perhaps “more human” implies “less likely to bomb other humans.”