The below isn't mine. It's an excerpt from an article Why Live Without Writing by a famous German poet I've never heard of called Durs Grunbein, translated by Michael Hoffman and printed in the newest issue of Poetry. Except there is no such person, Durs Grunbein. There is a person "Durs Grunbein" whose "u" has an umlaut, but I don't feel like putting it in.
In his diaries, Hugo von Hofmannsthal brings up the story of a German officer in China who, following the Boxer Rebellion, participated in a penal expedition:
The officer sees a line of men sentenced to death, standing in a field. With his sword the executioner goes from man to man. There is no need for his assistants to tie or even to hold down any of them; as soon as it’s the next man’s turn, he stands there with feet apart, his hands gripping his knees, his neck stretched out, offering it to the blade. One of the last in line, still some way from coming due, is completely immersed in a book. The officer rides up to him and asks: “What’s that you’re reading?” The man looks up, asks back: “Why are you bothering me?” The officer asks: “How can you read now?” The man says: “I know that every line I read is something gained.” The officer rides to the general who has ordered the execution, and begs him for the man’s life for so long that he gets him off, rides back with the written acquittal, shows it to the officer in charge, and is allowed to go and take the man out of line. Tells him: “You’ve been acquitted, you’re free to go.” The man shuts his book, looks the officer in the eye, and says: “You have done a good thing. Your soul will have profited greatly from this hour”—and he nods to him, and sets off across the field.