When I asked educators about the usefulness of Clean Reader, the responses were definitive. Teachers don’t like it. It smacks of censorship. It dilutes the purpose of art, or worse–it bastardizes it in the name of correctness. One teacher said that the app is “a violation of all of the principles of intellectual freedom that we as educators should stand up for.” Another called the app “censorship, pure and simple.” The idea that the Clean Reader app “will not give students access to books that are currently banned because they are not the book the author intended” is, I think, deep in the heart of teachers who believe that their purpose and their practice is to give kids unfettered access to the world of literature and the unique artistic vision that literature provides.
With the recent suspension of Rafe Esquith from the classroom he made famous with works like Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire for reading a passage to his class from Mark Twain that mentions nudity, maybe it is dangerous to give an inch to those who would alter great works like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or ban them altogether, in support of one dogma or another. The correctness police hold enough sway in matters of speech and art; who needs a mechanical Turk to clean up everything objectionable to someone in materials that we read?
To be fair, we live in a time of unprecedented manipulation and personalization of media. Digital texts that replace print texts offer a ton of features that are user controlled, and that sidestep authorial preference completely. Think font, font size, pagination, ability to share the text, and ability to resell the text, for example. Think about mechanical text to speech options. No author would embrace a mechanical reading of their work, a process that pretty much guarantees a lot of mispronounced words. But the ability to have a text read to you mechanically does not inspire calls that it should be banned. So why do people feel so strongly that modifying a text for a particular audience is so repugnant?
One bedrock principle says that no one has the right to efface a work of art. But is that true for a quicksilver medium that has, throughout time, yielded to the pens of editors, retellers, abridgers, and summarizers? What if Clean Reader removed the objectionable words and called the resulting work an abridgement? I grew up in a household that subscribed to Reader’s Digest, and that was one of the things that made our house a literate household, rather than a refuge for philistine sentiment. Pretty much every literature textbook I used in school messed with the text of the included works in one way or another. And we haven’t even mentioned the authors whose indecision and self-editing have left subsequent generations of readers unclear about what exact version of a work is to be considered canonical, and which not. What if Go Set a Watchman was indeed the draft of a novel that became To Kill a Mockingbird? Harper Lee didn’t want others to read it until, in her great old age, she was understood to say that she had changed her mind. What is the status of that text?
So, authorial intention and the words that appear on the page are not always in synch with one another. And often, that happens because the author accommodates an editor or publisher who has the power to ensure that none of the words make it into print if certain of the words must, according to the author, be included. Take the word “bloody.” Joyce struggled mightily to see his classic Dubliners into print but had to sacrifice many instances of the word in order to succeed. For Joyce, each excision felt like cutting off a finger, yet he did it in order to get his stuff read. In fact one can look at the text of Dubliners and all its missing bloodys a little bit like a text that has been run through a clean reader process. The difference is that after Clean Reader is done with a text, all the excised words are still available to everyone else.
That’s why I think Clean Reader isn’t that big of a deal. Words have been removed from texts since the time of the scribes and no one was the wiser, however much the removal served agendas wicked and benign. For a parent to say that I don’t want my kid exposed to the the “f” word but that I do want her to read what she wants to read, then maybe the program is not so bad. Let’s save the protests for the time when a Clean Reader appears that can sanitize the subversive plots and themes that make literature the delicious adventure that it is.