Who can forget the climax of “Gone With the Wind” when Rhett turned to Scarlett and shockingly, unforgettably told her “My dear, I don’t give a darn?”
Or the pages of Shelby Foote’s “The Civil War” where William T. Sherman warns that “War is heck?”
And of course, there’s that shocking background refrain in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” where one of the “Chronics” in the asylum can’t say anything but “Fff ….” Come to think of it, I guess he never gets to say much of anything.
At least, that may be the case with a new app called Clean Reader that’s advertised to remove all the profanity from an e-book. The app can be set to Clean, Cleaner, Squeaky Clean or Off, depending on how many swear words a reader feels like tolerating; censored words receive a blue dot and a suggested substitute for those that tap the deletion.
It’s not the first time that something like this has been tried, of course. Go back to the 19th century and you find Thomas Bowdler’s cleaned-up edition of Shakespeare, where Opehlia drowns accidentally and Lady Macbeth screams “Out, crimson spot!” (And yes, this is where the word bowdlerization comes from.) Film buffs can point instead at CleanFlicks, a company which re-edited movies to remove offensive content until a judge told them to stop.
The difference here, of course, is that there’s a certain amount of reader control. Instead of buying an adulterated copy, the customer buys the same book as everyone else and then chooses whether to filter it. That’s led some to defend the app: “It’s my book and my business, right?”
There’s some truth to that. But there’s also a catch. Two catches, really.
Yes, you can do with your book whatever you want. If you choose to right now, you can take any book you own and go through it with a black marker to remove anything. That’s not new, either. Thomas Jefferson once took that approach to his copy of the Gospels, literally trimming out any reference to miracles or the supernatural.
But that’s where you run into Catch No. 1: markers don’t work so well on the mind. Even when you let something line out the profanity for you, the word isn’t gone. Every time a reader hits the deleted or substituted word, the act simply calls attention to what used to be there, unless the reader is either innocent or quite young.
And then there’s Catch No. 2, brought up by a friend: if you don’t trust an author to use the right words, why are you reading him or her in the first place?
One of the glories – and yes, sometimes, one of the dangers – of the written word is that it’s a telepathic act. By staring at words on a page, you can know what a writer was thinking, no matter how much time has passed since the thought. At any time, a reader can dive into the ideas of Mark Twain, J.D. Salinger or Maya Angelou, touching them mind-to-mind until the book is closed.
But the words matter. Twain once said that the difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning bug. They’re tools, chosen to evoke a desired effect.
Change the word, and you change the effect. You no longer have a clear window into the author’s mind, but only an approximation.
It’s true, not every author uses profanity, just like not every painter uses teal or violet. The ones that do have a reason. If the excuse seems weak, that’s a perfectly valid reason to read a different book or even a different author. Nobody reads everything, nobody has to read anything.
But what you do choose to read – don’t hold back. Read it. Without screens. Without modification. Find your way into that mind, even the uncomfortable parts, and see what you discover.
You may love it. You may hate it. But you’ll know because you’ve read the book, instead of almost the book.
And missing that opportunity would be a darned shame.