LAST week saw one of the more of unusual legal sentences of recent years after Ben John, a 21-year-old student from Lincoln was found guilty of possessing information likely to be useful for preparing an act of terror.

John had been under the watchful eye of counter-terrorism police since 2018, when he wrote a tirade against gay people and immigrants. By the time he was arrested in January 2020, he had downloaded almost 70,000 documents, including white supremacist and anti-Semitic material, as well as bomb making instructions.

The charge John was convicted for carries a maximum sentence of fifteen years.

But rather than imprisoning him, Judge Timothy Spencer QC described his behaviour as ‘an act of teenage folly’ and gave him a two-year suspended sentence, together with some alternative reading suggestions.

Spencer ordered John to read a selection of classic literature, on which he would be tested in the new year. ‘Have you read Dickens? Austen?’ he asked him. ‘Start with Pride and Prejudice and Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Think about Hardy. Think about Trollope. On 4 January you will tell me what you have read and I will test you on it.’

As rulings go, it is controversial to say the least: the campaign group Hope Not Hate were among those criticising the decision, asking the Attorney General to review the sentence under the Unduly Lenient Sentence scheme.

But should the sentencing stand, it does beg an intriguing question: how far can literature go in improving and changing people?

There is plenty of research out there that suggests the positive effects of reading books.

Literary fiction in particular has been shown to improve empathy. The psychologist Keith Oatley has described fiction as ‘the mind’s flight simulator’: using your imagination to put yourself in the shoes of other people.

In March last year, Oxford University Press published Professor Philip Davis’ Reading for Life, which studied the effect on the mind of reading classic literature. Hooking readers up to brain scanners while they read Dickens and Shakespeare, Davis said, ‘you could see their brains coming alive.’

Davis recommends the promotion of reading in care homes, citing the case of one dementia patient who spoke for the first time in months after being given a book to read.

Whether reading Pride and Prejudice is enough to help change extreme political views, I guess we’ll find out. But if converting a white supremacist is part of the plan, one can’t help noting that the reading list a little, well, white. Surely, it would have better to offer up a selection of books that are more modern and more diverse?