Malcolm Gladwell as punishment? Judge orders woman to read 'David and Goliath'

After a woman recently turned herself in to American authorities and confessed to participating in setting several fires, a judge ordered she read both 'Goliath' and Mary C. Wood's 'Nature's Trust' in addition to serving a prison sentence and completing community service.

A judge ordered confessed arsonist Rebecca Rubin to read 'David and Goliath' as part of her sentence.

It may not be cruel, but how’s this for an unusual punishment: A Canadian arsonist was recently sentenced to serve five years in prison – and to read Malcolm Gladwell’s “David and Goliath.”

After going on the run for the better part of a decade, Rebecca Rubin, an animal and environmental rights activist, recently turned herself in to US authorities. Rubin confessed to participating in a number of arsons between 1996 and 2001 that caused an estimated $40 million in damages, including setting fire to a Colorado ski resort, a Northern California wild horse corral (after freeing the horses), and an Oregon lumber mill.

Portland, Oregon US district court judge Ann Aiken doled out the unique punishment: a five-year prison sentence, 200 hours of community service, payment towards more than $13 million in restitution, and instructions to read two books: Gladwell’s “David and Goliath” and Mary C. Wood’s “Nature’s Trust.”

Judge Aiken’s reasoning: Gladwell’s book about why underdogs succeed would teach Rubin “non-violent means to protesting systems she perceives as unjust,” Aiken said. And “Nature’s Trust” purports to “expose the dysfunction of environmental law” and “empower citizens to protect their inalienable property rights to crucial resources.” 

Interestingly, Rubin cited books as her inspiration. As the UK’s Guardian reported, “In a letter to the judge, Rubin wrote that ever since she was a child, when her favorite books were Charlotte's Web and Beautiful Joe – "both of which center on mistreated non-human protagonists" – animals and the natural world "have always been for me a source of profound joy, wonder and solace, and their mistreatment and destruction a source of indescribable pain.”

“I reached a point in my early twenties when I could longer contain or appropriately channel the grief, despair, and powerlessness I felt in response to the mistreatment of animals and the natural world," wrote Rubin. "Although at the time I believed my only motivation was my deep love for the earth, I now understand that impatience, anger, egotism and self-righteousness were also involved. In retrospect, I recognize how immature my actions were.”

Of course, some in the online community couldn’t resist poking fun.

“Despite a shorter sentence, Rebecca Rubin didn’t get off that easy,” Time joked. “The judge also stipulated she read the latest book by bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell.”

“For those wondering, some back of the envelope math tells me that Rubin would need to spend a little more than five hours a day for every day of her five-year sentence to master the art of reading Gladwell,” Slate quipped.

Gladwell jokes aside, we’re happy to see remedial reading make a comeback.

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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