It is a well-known fact that our country lies far behind other developed nations when it comes to the topic of habitual book reading.
Everyone is aware of the situation, from teachers to librarians, from writers to publishers, even politicians. Those who do read in Turkey know the important role played by those who are in the habit of reading in terms of the general development of the country, and they do as much to promote this activity as possible. They carry out this work despite knowing the difficulty of getting results from projects that are not state supported. One of their greatest motivations in doing so is the firm and unshakable belief that a society composed of readers and people who use the library throughout their lives is one which will always be more prosperous and more democratic. One of these groups of readers is librarians who have graduated from information and document management programs. These librarians hold activities meant to underscore the important role played by books and reading, as well as by information and libraries, in life. In this way, they try to raise awareness about its importance in society and on the state level as well.
The most recent and original example of one of these activities could be seen in the 48th Library Week, celebrated March 26-April 1 this year. On March 26, in central locations in almost all of Turkey’s provinces, a mass reading event took place with not just librarians and various members of society reading books en masse between the hours of 12:30-1:00 p.m., but also officials such as governors. All of the participants in this mass reading event helped carry forward the message of the importance of reading for societal development.
Despite all of these efforts to get out the message about the benefits of reading for society, the Turkish justice system has seen a negative message about reading being dispersed through a unique practice by courts for about a decade now. The practice is one engaged in by some well-intentioned judges, who punish people convicted minor crimes by sentencing them to read books. The aim is to see people caught up in lesser crimes avoid prison, and instead carry out their sentence by heading to local libraries for enforced reading sessions. In the first cases of these sorts of punishment that were reported in the media people convicted of crimes such as bar fights, drunken street brawls or building illegal huts in the forest were ordered by the judge to read various books as punishment. The latest incidences of these sorts of punishments being leveled, however, are not acceptable at all. One incident was a case involving violence against a woman, another one involved someone threatening others’ safety by driving drunk and another involved someone causing an accidental death through negligence.
In all three of these cases, the judge saw fit to assign the convicted the punishment of book reading. And so the punishments took place not in any sort of prison but rather in what is referred to in developed countries as the “people’s university,” or the public library. In countries that focus on promoting education, science, etc., the advanced levels of libraries and reading habits are not surprising at all. And it is an absolute must for a state to consider the role of libraries and reading as part of this wider project. In these countries it is quite clear what roles are played by books, libraries and reading habits in social development, but this is not the case in Turkey.
It is contradictory to have the state wage campaigns to raise awareness of the severity of violence against women and then treat such incidents as “minor” crimes, the punishment for which is nothing more than reading a book. At the same time, another contradiction inherent in this practice is to have widespread reading campaigns sponsored by none other than the president’s office, but then to have the courts treat such a vital and noble activity as a punishment for criminals. Such inconsistencies and contradictions do not suit any state or government.
At the same time, the negative aspects of the situation can be seen in even more detail in reports from the field. Librarians working at the libraries where criminals have been ordered to read books report that, once done with their books, said people never return to the library. One such librarian notes that of 50 people given such a punishment, only one ever returned to read something, six months after the real “punishment” was over. Also, according to this librarian, one library where such a convict was ordered to read a book was the scene for some unpleasant behavior by said convict towards the women present.
However unpleasant, consider the following the scenario: Imagine that a male convict is at a library as punishment and is warned by a librarian on duty after he makes some inappropriate move towards a woman in the library. Now imagine what would happen if such convict were to pull out a knife or something else, and wound the librarian on duty? Who would ultimately be responsible in this situation? For all of the above reasons, a noble activity like reading has no place in the world of crime and punishment; placing it there lowers the respect and value that should be accorded to books and reading. There must be other methods found when it comes to punishing those convicted of truly minor crimes. In short, even if the judge on hand is well intentioned in his or her actions, reading is a noble activity and ought never to be viewed as a punishment.
*Dr. Erol Yılmaz is a librarian.