Get out of jail "free"

Been sitting on this one for a while, but I was fascinated by this New York Times article about a reading-as-rehabilitation program:

In a scuffed-up college classroom in Dartmouth, Mass., 14 people page through a short story by T. C. Boyle. They debate the date at which the action is set: when was the Chevy Bel Air released, and what was the drinking age in New York State that year? They question moral responsibility: when the three friends in the Bel Air assault a girl, should peer pressure be blamed for their impulse, or hormones, drink, sin? To which the man at the head of our table rejoins: “There’s a kind of complexity to human experience that isn’t always recognized. You try to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong, but sometimes both are wrong, right?”

Of the 14 people, a dozen are male. One is an English professor, one is a graduate student, two are judges and two are probation officers. The eight others are convicted criminals who have been granted probation in exchange for attending, and doing the homework for, six twice-monthly seminars on literature. The class is taught through Changing Lives Through Literature, an alternative sentencing program that allows felons and other offenders to choose between going to jail or joining a book club. At each two-hour meeting, students discuss fiction, memoirs and the occasional poem; authors range from Frederick Douglass to John Steinbeck to Toni Morrison, topics from self-­mutilation and family quarrels to the Holocaust and the Montgomery bus boycott.

Marci once linked me to an op-ed about writing-as-rehabilitation, which was in fact penned by a convict in the program, and he believed in it fervently. He was certainly eloquent, and seemed gentle enough in his words. But can reading and analyzing have the same effects as writing? When you create flashcards to study vocabulary, what’s really helping you remember: writing down the words, or reading them over and over?

(Not a perfect analogy, and I don’t have any answers, but it’s Monday morning, cut me some slack!)

“I don’t want to be all negative,” the officer begins, “but you have to read this book.” Not as in “This is a must-read,” but “We’ve had people go to jail for not reading.”

(I have to admit, that made me chuckle…)

But back to the central question: Does reading-as-rehabilitation work? Can books effect change?

“Poetry,” W. H. Auden once wrote, “makes nothing happen.” But Waxler insists that “literature can make a difference” — more specifically, that lives are touched by printed art as they can’t be by the act of sitting around a table arguing about a movie, a song, a self-help book or one’s own childhood. The probation officer begins by telling participants that “this program isn’t a miracle,” but it works in mysterious ways.

Books over movies, I can believe. But over music? Over therapy? I don’t know.

Sometimes I feel like I have to say I want to change lives with my writing. (Note: I do want that, but I hate having to justify my desired career path just because it’s an art.) But what does change mean? Change for how long? How deeply? Is making someone smile (or cry) enough? Or do I need to inspire some sort of personal evolution?

Again, no answers here. I’m all about the questions. Just ask Andy. It drives him nuts!

Like this:



The only thing missing


What type are you?


  1. I don’t think the point of this program is to reach the felons emotionally but rather using literature as a way to teach analytical thinking, especially about human behavior. They are able to read a story about what people are doing and then ask themselves why the characters did x, y, or z, and what were the results of those decisions? The ability to do this could certainly translate to an ability to think about their own behavior and that of those around them. The first paragraph you quoted points to this pretty specifically. I think that the depth of detail and character development (and actions) in literature is more useful for this sort of analyzing – by a long shot – than music, and as for therapy, well, sometimes it’s easier to look at what someone else is doing (a character is a story in this case) than at yourself, but the mere act of looking at someone else can ultimately facilitate looking at oneself.

    • Sonja’s recent blog post: Definitely boring. Definitely.

  2. Good point. I definitely see how the analytical reasoning would be more poignant in story form (i.e., books or movies) than music.

  3. I think when it comes to change, it’s if you’re seeking it, then a book (or music) will affect you.

    I think using books as scripts, so to speak, like role-playing is also a good practice, like Sonja said.

    • Angie’s recent blog post: Umlauf Sculpture Garden and the lovely irises

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