This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, March 20, 1991

March 20, 1991 - It's a crime

About a year ago, somebody gave me a clipping from the Denver Post. It was about an Alabama Circuit Judge who handed down some "novel sentences."

This judge, John Rochester, after ordering some 20 probationers to read classics and write book reports, defended his unusual dispensation of justice with the statement, "They're not hanging out at pool rooms. They're home reading and writing. Hopefully they can improve themselves."

Now don't get me wrong. Although I candidly admit that if I could figure out a crime that would get me 20 years hard reading, I'd be sorely tempted to commit it, it is also an article of professional faith with me that Reading is Good. Who knows? Reading and writing together might have turned Jesse James into Mahatma Gandhi.

But just for the record, I think there's a lot to be said for hanging out in pool rooms too. (In particular, I'd recommend the recently refurbished Spur Inn in Larkspur.) A little known fact: Ernest Hemingway, Willa Cather, J.D. Salinger, Walt Whitman, and James Baldwin are just a few of the many major American writers who were powerfully drawn to the game of 8-ball.

Well, okay, it could be that I just made that up. Of course, to find out if I'm lying, you'll probably have to come to the library and dig through some reference books. But look at the bright side: at least you wouldn't be hanging around in pool rooms, which is where I'll be. (After regular library hours, of course.)

But back to Old Judge Rochester: he always tried to match the book with the crime. He tended to sentence reprobates to read Tom Wolfe's #The Bonfire of the Vanities# and Kafka's #The Trial#. According to the Post, "A minister who pleaded guilty to theft was ordered to read one book in the Bible each month."

I suspect that the Judge's heart was in the right place, but I'm still a little troubled by his approach.

The surest way to destroy anyone's incipient love of literature is to FORCE him or her to read. If you don't believe me, ask any high school English student.

My mother used to tell me how her favorite poem in all the world was "Oh Captain, My Captain," by Whitman. At least until one day a teacher condescended to tell her that the poem was REALLY about the death of Abraham Lincoln. On top of that, the poem included measurable and patently obvious dollops of Symbolism and Metaphors -- at least to the trained eye.

That pretty well scotched my mother's interest in poetry. How on earth, she demanded of me some 25 years later, could anyone be expected to know that a beautiful poem that never once mentioned Lincoln was about Lincoln? It SAID it was about a Captain!

In short, the whole experience made my mother feel stupid. It made her feel that the English teacher, and poetry, and even Walt Whitman had somehow teamed up to humiliate her fledgling affection for one of the human race's oldest forms of expression.

I am not a Circuit Court Judge in Alabama. However, it seems to me that it's hard enough to get people interested in literature. We may learn from what we read, but that's a result, not a motive. Those of us who read widely, read for pleasure.

Coercing law-breakers to read as punishment is not just an idea that probably won't work.

It's criminal.

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