The way to a man’s heart may be through his stomach, but the way to understand a person’s heart comes straight off their bookshelf, according to the law in Michigan.
The judgement on 15-year-old, Justin Furnari, who killed a woman in a hit-and-run car accident, included an intriguing twist – a stipulation to read. In accordance with what you would expect, the judge sentenced him to four years in juvenile detention, the maximum penalty allowed under law, and ordered him to pay for her funeral expenses. But intriguingly the judge added a stipulation to the sentence – the teen was also ordered to read three books a month. This starts with “The Catcher in the Rye”, which was a favourite of 59-year-old Penny Przywara, the woman that he hit and killed.
It’s an interesting idea, although the news reports are sadly lacking in the why of the judge’s decision. Was it motivated by a belief that further education would broaden and improve the mind of the teen, or an attempt to make the culprit understand the mind of the woman he hit? Did it come out over the trial that the teen did not read and the judge believed he would benefit from it? Or something else entirely?
Still, the first step to empathy is to understand other people, and what better way to get to know someone than to read the books that appeal to them? The Catcher in the Rye is a much-lauded coming of age story written by JD Salinger, featuring a teenage protagonist wrestling with his identity, teenage rebellion and his sense of alienation from society. It’s a book frequently recommended to teenagers, echoing the wrestles with growing-up and confusion as it does. The fact that it remained a favourite of Ms Przywara until her late fifties suggests, had she ever met Justin, Penny would have understood the young man a great deal more than he would have expected.
That said, just because it’s a book about teenagers doesn’t mean they will all like it. The Catcher in the Rye was on my own required reading list at high school and I have to admit the fragmented and occasionally incoherant prose and the whiny indecisiveness of the protagonist, Holden Caulfield, left me not so much with an understanding of him but with more of an urge to smack him – and JD Salinger – in the face with a herring. Repeatedly. I did, however, take a huge shine to Shakespeare, and particularly Macbeth, which most of my class declared boring. Perhaps it was all the hot men with Scottish accents or my wish to be a witch when I grew up.
There’s no doubt that people’s choice in reading tells you a great deal about them and – as my poor long suffering English teacher could have told you – the main thing you learn when you have to recommend a book to a large group of people is that for every person who “gets it” and loves it, there will be two people loudly complaining that it’s rubbish. In recommending The Catcher in the Rye, the judge takes the risk that it will not just not appeal to, but actively alienate, the fifteen year old boy that will be reading them. Perhaps that’s why the judge stipulated not just one book but three a month.
Or perhaps I have the wrong end of the stick completely, and the judge just works part-time in the publishing industry. What do you think, and what book would you recommend people read to understand you?