What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Book that Dare Not Speak Its Name

I admit that reading this book in public could prove dangerous to your health, at least based on my experience on the New York city subway system returning home from BookExpo, where I obtained a review copy of this slim volume from its publishers. Glimpsing the title as I skimmed the first few pages, a woman sitting across from me began haranguing me about violence being the problem that makes the city unlivable, and that any book suggesting that we flog our children is just going to make matters worse... I gather that I'm not alone, as at least two other people have reported similarly hostile reactions.

Well, to put matters straight, this book isn't about flogging children. Nor does it have anything at all to do with sexual deviancy (in case anyone is hoping that it does.) Rather, the author -- a former cop and now a professor -- crafted his opus as a semi-serious way to draw attention to his real concern: the fact that not only do prisons not work and cost us a tremendous amount of money, they actually damage society by rendering inmates (most of whom will eventually be released) insane, unemployable and criminal for life. Why, not he suggests (somewhat tongue in cheek) offer convicted people bound for prison the option to exchange their prison sentence for a specified ratio of, say, 1 lash for every two years of jail time? He's not suggesting cutting serial killers or terrorists loose, but thinks something needs to be done to address less dangerous offenders and rein in what is already the highest rate of incarceration in the world (five times the global average, far higher than in Iran or China, and higher even than Russia).

Moskos avoids several easy traps, such as not suggesting that all prisoners be eligible for this option and providing for some input by victims of crime, and he's creative in the way he diagnoses the problem and prescribes his rather unique and distinctive solution. It's an uncomfortable book to read sometimes, but also a witty and extremely well-written one, and it raises important issues that should be taken seriously even if his solution isn't.

The author has been asked to write an op-ed on the subject for the Wall Street Journal, and I'm ready to predict another Tiger Mother-style controversy. But the difference is that Moskos has ingredients in his arguments that are likely to appeal to both sides of the political spectrum, from the most woolly-minded liberal to conservatives in favor of the toughest punishments imaginable. Indeed, it would be rather amusing to watch the two extremes forced to agree on something at last...

For such a slim book, this is very comprehensive and even though I wriggled with discomfort, I can't help recommending it very highly. I just suggest removing the dust jacket if you're planning on reading it in public...

No comments:

Post a Comment