Reading books “strengthens the spirit of faith and the will to solve social problems” — so there! Get caught reading. Well actually it’s really read after getting caught, because these are the words of a judge in Gonbad-e Kavus, in northeastern Iran. He is sentencing the reading of books from an approved list as an alternative to incarceration, as local prisons are overfull. Quartz provides the story. The convicts have to buy the books, and write a report on each.

The New Yorker had an article about reading as punishment in 2010: Judge Naqizadeh’s trick has been tried in Michigan and elsewhere. The article links to Changing Lives through Reading: An alternative sentencing program based at The University of Massachusetts, which claims good results from having prisoners read.

Of course we all know how damaging it is to punish children by making them read books as a disciplinary technique. I was made to read A Tale of Two Cities as a punishment at school, and I never opened another Dickens’ book till I was about 50: a significant loss. The punishment that keeps on giving! Perhaps forcing adults to read books works better, but I do think we are all programmed to resist compulsion, so this might not be the royal road to creating a world of readers. Whether Judge Naqizadeh’s plan is working or not is not clear from the Quartz piece, but the lessons you can learn from a book are at least likely to be better than the lessons you’d learn from mingling with hardened criminals. Of course showing too much desire to read can get the bejeezus beaten out of you.