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Neo-Nazi trial

Sentenced to reading the classics

Olivia’s betrothal in Twelfth Night, by William Hamilton. Sepia Times/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

The trial last week of a Nazi sympathiser descended into a “book club meeting”, says David Woode in the I newspaper. Instead of a 15-year sentence for downloading bomb-making instructions and “preparing an act of terror”, 21-year-old Ben John, who owned 70,000 white supremacist documents, received a 24-month jail sentence, suspended for two years, and a weighty reading list of literary classics. “Have you read Dickens? Austen?” asked the judge, Timothy Spencer QC. “Start with Pride and Prejudice and Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.” John, described by the judge as “lonely” and “highly susceptible”, is to be tested on his knowledge of the books in court by Spencer every four months. The anti-fascist group Hope Not Hate wants the case reviewed because it sends a soft message to white supremacists. It’s all “stranger than fiction”.

Fat chance of this working, says Amanda Craig in The Sunday Times. Fiction is, as Francis Spufford put it in his memoir The Child That Books Built, “a mood-altering drug”, but it is “rarely a mind-altering one”. It is intended to entertain, not to convert. Hitler loved Shakespeare, and his top four novels were Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels and Don Quixote. Indeed, some of the nastiest people I have ever encountered have been English literature grads and authors. Spite, snobbery and prejudice are all familiar features of those saturated in literature. And as a novelist myself, I should know. “We are not all good people.”

I agree it sounds bananas, says Peter Isackson on the American website FairObserver.com. But isn’t this eccentric judge on to something? Most telling is his remark that John’s internet habits were “repellent… to any right-thinking person”. If you want to teach someone to be “right-thinking”, start with the classics. Calling in great writers of the past as witnesses of what right-thinking people believe “will at least rob such individuals of the time they would dedicate to reading downloaded extremist literature”. Who knows, reading great works from the past may stir his soul: “Instead of engaging in the crime of downloading with intent, he may start uploading with creative ambition.”

You might want to take a second glance at this reading list, says Michael Deacon in the Telegraph. If this susceptible Nazi sympathiser reads Dickens’s Oliver Twist, he will encounter Fagin, “a nakedly anti-semitic stereotype”. In Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, he’ll find Shylock, who is similarly problematic. For extra credit, he might discover that Evelyn Waugh admired Mussolini, Ezra Pound supported Hitler and WB Yeats approved of eugenics: “Sooner or later we must limit the families of the unintelligent classes”. He will find that Philip Larkin wrote a poem urging the government to “kick out the n*s”. Frankly, it feels more sensible to send the repulsive young Ben John straight to jail, “tucked up in his bunk with a nice, safe Dan Brown”.

🧑‍⚖️📚 Creative punishments are not uncommon in Ohio, says the I’s David Woode, and judge Michael Cicconetti is the master. A man caught with a loaded gun was sent to a morgue to view corpses. Two teenagers who scrawled graffiti on a Nativity figure of Jesus had to lead a donkey through the streets, carrying a sign that said: “Sorry for the jackass offence, but he is soooo cute!” And a man who called police officers “pigs” after being stopped for a driving offence had to stand on a street corner with a 350lb pig and a sign saying: “This is not a police officer.