Self-Sanitizing Books in the Digital Era

Français : Pape Clément IV (Fresque de la Tour...

Français: Pape Clément IV (Fresque de la Tour Ferrande à Pernesles Fontaine, Vaucluse, France) Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Thomas Bowdler is alive and well, residing comfortably in tablets and e-readers across the globe. 

For as long as people have been writing, there have been groups dedicated to keeping words and phrases away from the public. English physician Thomas Bowdler began his crusade to expurgate objectionable verses from both Shakespeare and Gibbon in the 1800s, but he wasn't the first to impose his views of good taste on others--church censorship goes back centuries, such as when Pope Clement IV ordered the Jews of Aragon to submit all written work to Dominican censors prior to dissemination in the thirteenth century.

Today, the internet is full of filters and other mechanisms to block content. It's not news that China employs such filters on its ISPs--insiders call it "The Great Firewall"--it's more startling when expurgation happens on home turf, where freedom of speech supposedly reigns. In 2011 English professor Alan Gribben sanitized a new edition of Huckleberry Finn, replacing the pejorative term for a black man--which appears over 200 times in the book--with "slave," rationalizing tampering with Twain's classic in his introduction as as way to "spare the reader from a racial slur that never seems to lose its vitriol."

Even at college campuses across the country, professors are prefacing literature with so-called "trigger warnings" (often at the request of students, no less) when reading course material containing explicitly violent, sexual, or otherwise upsetting verbiage. In one example, an internal memo from Oberlin College in Ohio suggested professors flag any material containing elements of "classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism (bias against the transgendered), ableism (bias against the handicapped), and other issues of privilege and oppression." There was much backlash, and the college eventually backed away from the proposal. Still, there are plenty other schools accommodating student requests by including warnings on syllabi, and shielding students from material that might make them uncomfortable.

As of January, readers needn't rely on academics or clerics to clean up their literature--there's an app for that. For free, consumers can download "Clean Reader" through the Apple Store or Google Play. Once installed, the app promises a sanitized version of any e-book available for purchase. Clean Reader's press release explains the process: "Clean Reader delivers the opportunity of reading any book without being exposed to profanity. By selecting how clean they want their books to appear, readers are presented the content of a book without offensive words and phrases. To preserve the context of the book, an alternative word with the same general meaning is available for each instance where a word is blocked from display."

Readers can even select just how devoid of profanity they want their book; levels are categorized as Clean, Cleaner, and Squeaky Clean.  I spoke with Kirsten Maughan, co-developer of the application, who said that the product has already been downloaded about 1,000 times, in every state in America and eighty countries. "People seem to like it, but we've heard from both sides," she said. After our brief chat, Maughan called back, wishing to make clear that the Clean Reader app does not violate copyright laws - it doesn't actually change the text, it merely allows readers to self-sanitize as they wish. "We had a lot of lawyers look at it. They say we aren't violating author copyrights, and we are not censoring books. Users can even turn off the Clean Reader if they want. It's just a filter."

Is Clean Reader any different than the act of excising text in a physical book?  Perhaps not. Clean Reader doesn't permanently change a text, but it does point to a larger trend at work, where readers of e-books stand on shifting sands of permanence in an ever-increasingly pixelated literary landscape. Should we be more troubled that readers are volunteering to avoid potentially squeamish material in the name of comfort? How much pleasure, inspiration, or cause for discussion (and education) is lost when a reader selects a Squeaky-Clean version of a text because of the potential to offend?  I'm reminded of that oft-repeated phrase from Thomas Gray's poem "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College" (1742): "Where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise."