Books as Teachers, Books as Atonement, Books as Lifeline

“I cannot live without books.” (Thomas Jefferson to John Adams)

Many years ago, a friend gave me a paperweight with that Jefferson quote inscribed on it. It has sat on my desk for more than two decades. I suppose it is a bit of exaggeration to say one cannot live without books. Maslow’s hierarchy did not lump books with food, water, oxygen, or shelter. Had they been mentioned at all, books might have been relegated to the levels where belonging or self-actualization reside.

Less poetic, but perhaps more precise would be to say I cannot imagine a life without books.

Some of my earliest memories are of books. As a morning child in a family of night-owls, I remember reading in bed for two, three, even four hours before my parents got up on weekend mornings. The best Christmas gifts were always books, and the best activity for whiling away the hours on any holiday was to curl up with a book. I recall the excitement of receiving the periodic Scholastic Books catalog in school and running home to see how many my parents would allow me to order, then poring over the catalog with my pencil clutched tightly in my hand. The day the books arrived was as good as Christmas—maybe better—since it didn’t require getting dressed up or spending long hours with aunts, uncles, and cousins.

The list of things that concern me about our current President is encyclopedic, and high on that list is the fact the he doesn’t read—and that he seems proud of that fact. He doesn’t need to read other people’s words or think about what other people have experienced; he doesn’t need to understand history or ponder the thoughts of wise men and women from the past. He carries all the wisdom he will ever need in that cotton-candy brain, under that cotton-candy hair. He tells us confidently that he is a “stable genius.” It’s scary that he says it, scarier that he believes it. And scarier still that so many people are willing to blindly accept it because he says it’s true. I wonder whether these people are readers, and what they read, and why some never outgrow a juvenile infatuation with Ayn Rand.

I recently read a news story about five teenagers in Virginia who were arrested for defacing the Ashburn Colored School, a one-room, 19th century schoolhouse that had been used by black children during segregation. The teens were 16- and 17-years old; two were white and three were nonwhite. They spray-painted swastikas and the words “white power” and “black power” on the historic building.

Ordinarily, a conviction for such vandalism would probably have resulted in community service, and perhaps a fine, for the underage offenders. But Judge Avelina Jacob, at the suggestion of Deputy Commonwealth Attorney Alejandra Rueda, imposed a very different sentence: She made them read books. And after that, they were to submit written reports on what they read and what they learned.

Among the books they could choose from were Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; Elie Wiesel’s Night, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible; Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner; Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird; T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain; Solomon Northup’s 12 Years a Slave; and Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.

Because of the age of the offenders, their identities were protected, but the New York Times did—with permission—run anonymous excerpts of one young man’s court-ordered essay.

The teen acknowledged that he hadn’t understood what a swastika meant. Now, though, he recognized the swastika as a symbol of oppression and white power, of claims that the white race “is above all else, which is not the case.” He further wrote that “Everybody should be treated with equality, no matter the race, religion, sex, or orientation. I will do my best to see to it that I am never this ignorant again.”

Judging from that statement alone, I would say that lives were changed as a result of this unusual sentence. The reading penance has since been applied to at least one other Virginia case precipitated by teen bigotry.

Reactions to the punishments have been mixed. Marilyn Nelson, author of A Wreath for Emmett Till—a book of poetry about the young black man lynched in 1955 Mississippi—expressed concern. “I can’t say I’m pleased to know that my work is being inflicted as punishment. Will kids punished by being made to read poetry ever read poetry again?” Her concerns were shared by some teachers who didn’t like the idea of making reading a punishment.

Young people were also divided. One 17-year-old said the sentence “reeks of pampering and no consequences,” and doubted that students—especially minority students—in areas of lesser economic privilege, would be offered such light sentences. A 16-year-old said she thought the punishment made sense and would teach the offenders not only what they did wrong but why it was wrong.

T.C. Boyle, author of The Tortilla Curtain, said he hoped an offending teenager reading his book “will be able to live inside the skin of someone unfamiliar to him … and that the experience will enrich his social perspective.”

And Khaled Hosseini said, “Books allow us to see ourselves in another. They transform us. I hope reading The Kite Runner was a small step along that transformation for this young man.”

Personally, I see mostly positive in this creative sentencing approach. While an author might feel a bit of a sting in seeing their book assigned as “punishment,” the possibility of changing lives through one’s words and stories outweighs the sting. Changing and challenging the way people think—including ourselves—is one of the reasons why we write. A young person—or older person for that matter—who sees only the punitive element of being required to read is not likely to be a candidate for further reading, so it’s doubtful that the court has squelched a growing passion.

A larger question—and one that there’s neither time nor space to explore here—is why aren’t kids learning about the meaning of swastikas, the history of oppression and intolerance, and the cultural differences that make us richer as a nation? I was alarmed last month to hear that two-thirds of American millennials have never heard of Auschwitz, and a large number are unaware that the Holocaust took place. Such ignorance is dangerous, dreadfully dangerous.  

Perhaps more of us need to be “sentenced” to read books that will enlighten us and make us think.

Let’s start with the folks who live and work at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 

“The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.” (John F. Kennedy)

[You may have noticed some changes to my website. It has new headers, a new look, and some new pages—huge thanks to my friend Christine for her help. One new feature that I hope you will like is on the home page where I share brief stories of kindness. If you recall a kindness, experience or witness one, I hope you will consider submitting it for inclusion. There’s a link to the submission form. Let’s spread the kindness!]

18 thoughts on “Books as Teachers, Books as Atonement, Books as Lifeline

  1. Love this post. Like you I can’t envision a life without books. Reading has always been my favourite past time and even before I could read myself I’d bring my books to my parents so they could read to me. And I think the “punishment” of reading is a brilliant idea. I am a writer, and if I had a written a book that a judge felt could change someone’s life for the better I’d be thrilled.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’d be thrilled, too, Fransi, and I’d also be in good company, judging by the quality of the books they listed. There were a few I was unfamiliar with and have added to my TBR list. Thanks for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a wonderfully important essay, Donna. I’d suggest that the reading was not imposed as punishment, but as an opportunity for enlightenment. If the words of the young man’s essay ring true, then it worked in at least one case. I’m going to share this with a friend who is working hard to encourage reading among disadvantaged kids in her corner of the world!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much for your kind comment. I also don’t consider the sentence to be “punishment.” It’s more like opening a door and inviting the kids to expand their world. I’m guessing even if they grumbled about it at the time, each of those kids gained something valuable. Thanks for stopping by, and for following. I’m looking forward to your blog!


  3. I agree with all above. Punishment isn’t always the answer. An understanding of why what they did was wrong and a prevention of further crime/anti-social behaviour should be the aim. Some people just don’t see themselves as the rest of society sees them, becasue they’ve never stepped into someone else’s shoes. And ignorance isn’t always an individual’s fault – you don’t know what you don’t know. I think this is a brilliant scheme and imagine it would do great good if extended. But it has to be engaging or I imagine offenders would easily switch off. I’ve grown out of the reading books habit, but I now read lots of blogs and opinions and I read the news and online material avidly, so I hope that redeems me!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Consider yourself redeemed. I don’t think it matters whether we’re reading books or blogs, or articles. The important thing is to be willing to be open to new ideas and to seeing the world and our fellow inhabitants with new eyes. Thanks for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I found this very moving, Donna. The power of books to make us articulate, open-minded and empathic. A sentence to read books and write essays about them? That is my self-inflicted occupation, obviously geared to reforming myself! I just hope the kids read them. I can imagine US judges are desperately trying to find ways to keep them out of the overcrowded prisons.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is strange to see something referred to as a “sentence” or “punishment” that to many of us is as essential and vital as air. It’s like telling me that as penance for my misdeeds I must eat chocolate daily. Hope you’ve got some great books for your upcoming travels. I love how thinking back on a trip, I tend to remember the book I was reading in each location.


    • They really are, aren’t they? I can’t imagine how much I would have missed if I hadn’t had books to introduce me to new worlds and new ideas.


  5. Oh Donna, thank you for this post! The American Library Association conducted a study years ago (and the percentages may have changed by now) that found only 10 – 15% of our population is avid readers. We read everything! I thank my parents – who raised two English teachers. They read to us. Then, later, we all read – quietly – sitting in the same room. My brother and I participated in the library reading program each summer. I remember moving a space ship through the planets of our solar system. I know you’re a kindred spirit, Donna!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi, Jan! The ALA’s statistic on reading is certainly not very encouraging. I find it sad that so many people will not have those strong and powerful memories we have of reading as children, and of reading with our parents. My dad used to take me to the library on Saturday mornings to take out my books for the coming week. I devoured biographies of strong women—Nellie Bly, Molly Pitcher, Harriett Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Florence Nightingale . . . oh, there were so many! Yes, we are definitely kindred spirits. So good to connect with you! Thanks for your message.


Comments are closed.