We’ve come a long way since the early 19th century publication of Thomas Bowdler’s Family Shakespeare, a famously sanitized edition meant to make Shakespeare’s classics appropriate for children and the gentler sex. Today, cleaning up obscene texts is as easy as downloading an app.
Clean Reader, an app that allows readers to quickly and easily cover up or replace all offensive language in books purchased through the app, was dreamed up by Idaho couple Jared and Kirsten Maughan and developed by Page Foundry. The Maughans wanted to encourage their young daughter, who was a strong reader, to get into more advanced books, but found that adult books were likely to contain “pretty significant swear words.”
Reactions have ranged from bemused to outraged, with cries of censorship greeting media coverage of the app. To be clear, however, Clean Reader isn’t censorship; anyone who’s read a book of Shakespeare’s stories for children or an abridged classic for younger readers has experienced a similar curation. Parents who value learning and yet want to protect their children from adult material have long found other ways to introduce their young ones to classic and challenging texts. If an adult reader wishes to similarly expurgate their reads, many of us may not agree -- it seems tantamount to preferring the awkwardly scrubbed daytime version of "Sex and the City" -- but it’s a personal choice, not a governmental one.
It’s the strategy behind the app that suggests there’s something broader at play. According to the Washington Post, when the Maughans first spoke to lawyers about developing the app, the lawyers hastened to point out that “republishing books with the offensive words changed or removed would violate authors’ copyrights.” Well, yeah. In the past, while classics such as The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have been published in bowdlerized form, works under copyright were protected from the black markers of commercial expurgators.
The Maughans took their idea to Page Foundry, which developed a filter to clean up texts within the app. Instead of republishing the texts with edits, the app would be purveying the same book, but providing the option to cover up all of the obscenities. It even offers different levels of cleanness: Off, Clean, Cleaner, or Squeaky Clean, depending on how clean you like your reads.
This can be a pretty poor substitute for an actually edited “clean” edition, as demonstrated by the Washington Post’s running a particularly expletive-laden passage from Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor through the app. The result can be almost unreadable, with so many words covered with dots that it’s hard to tell what’s going on. For example: “I could hit your fat • • fine, you • Rerun from What’s Happening-looking •.” Huh?
Still, execution hiccups aside, the app makes one thing very clear: Ebooks have a flexibility that could completely change the extent to which censorship or sanitization is possible -- and the extent to which authors’ copyrights give them control over their texts.
There have been previous episodes that have signaled the unusual vulnerability of ebooks; in 2012, a digital publisher was busted for having accidentally replaced all instances of the word “kindle” with “Nook” in their edition of War and Peace, showing how easily, in the ebook realm, brand wars could bleed into the preserve of literature. In 2009, Amazon chose to simply delete digital copies of George Orwell books from customers’ Kindles after discovering the editions were not authorized for sale on Amazon, sparking outcry.
Ebooks are here to stay, and it’s worth embracing the many advantages of the flexible format -- the customizable text size, the ability to pack hundreds of books in one slim tablet, the availability of new reads from anywhere reached by the Internet, and even the development of innovative new literary forms that make use of the visual and audio capabilities of the format. The Clean Reader app may prove to be a purely beneficial outgrowth of the possibilities offered by ereading.
It’s also worth pausing, however, to note that ebooks have once again shifted the balance. No longer does an author necessarily have the option of signing off on altered editions -- at least if the alteration is merely a filter applied to the original book. Once we had to wait until books left copyright -- long after they'd become fixtures in literary and cultural history -- before we could play freely with their stories. Now, we can read a book that came out yesterday in a form as heavily edited as the recently sanitized edition of the classic Huck Finn.
Perhaps this is all meaningless. After all, the changes aren’t “real.” But it’s worth wondering what this newly unstable sense of reality means for readers.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that Jared and Kirsten Maughan initially intended to create an app that republished edited versions of books. Jared Maughan clarified in an email to HuffPost Books that this was not the case. The post has been updated to corrected this.