OPINION: Read it and weep

Crime spotlights need for books, empathy

Jessica Sommerville | Editor-in-Chief

When Virginian teenagers vandalized a historic black schoolhouse, defacing the building with swastikas, “white power,” and “brown power,” attorney Alejandra Rueda sentenced the five of them not to community service but to hit the books.

That’s right. For the next year, each vandal must read one book per month – one which focuses on the struggles over which he graffitied – and write a report on it. The reading list includes Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” which is about the Holocaust, Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” which is her coming of age story set in the 1930’s South, Khaled Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns,” which centers on an illegitimate child in Afghanistan.

While we might groan at the prospect of 12 book reports, thinking that at last the justice system has found the end-all for teenage crime, the reasoning for the sentence is much deeper than punishment. Rueda, as quoted in the New York Times, did not believe that simply logging hours of community service would “bring the message home.” She said she thought “maybe if they read these books, it will make an impression on them, and they will stand up for people who are being oppressed.”

Maybe. Maybe our peers – our 16 and 17-year-old peers next to whom we may have sat in any history class, had we not lived states apart – will stare down their own prejudices and reconsider what it means to be human, of any race. Maybe. But maybe we will ask ourselves what difference a book will make; after all, we remember the elementary school memoirs in which we penned away our sibling rivalries, our broken limbs, our lost championship games.

Our teachers told us “Write what you know,” so we did. It had not seemed so important then. Writer Nikki Giovanni, however, would have told us “Writers don’t write from experience, although many are hesitant to admit that they don’t. Writers write from empathy.”

If we had considered the feeling behind our words and that of others, if we had considered stories as vehicles for empathy, perhaps we would not have been so quick to disregard them. These novels, after all, are not tenuous classroom ramblings; these are not last-minute, pull-off-the-top-of-the-list-because-my-summer-reading-is-due-tomorrow-and-I-haven’t-started-yet novels. These stories reflect the most sadistic parts of ourselves, yet they also reflect the most hopeful. Each shows us what we have overcome, what we can still overcome.

Conceived in empathy, these books do not incite feelings in us that were never there – they merely reawaken them. They remind us that to be human is not about “white power” and “brown power.” It is the constant ache of being irreconcilably broken but loving anyway, living anyway. I hope these novels will shame our peers. I hope they will make them cry.

I hope next Friday night, our Virginian and Mason peers alike will spend it at the mall, at the movies, at a mosh pit – not vandalizing history or proliferating hate. Or better yet, I hope we will spend it with a book.

“Writers don’t write from experience, although many are hesitant to admit that they don’t. …If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.”