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Why sanitizing books is worse than banning them

FILE – Books by Roald Dahl are displayed at the Barney’s store on East 60th Street in New York on Monday, Nov. 21, 2011. Critics are accusing the publisher of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s books of censorship after it removed colorful language from stories such as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Matilda” to make them more acceptable to modern readers. (AP Photo/Andrew Burton, File)

Ian Fleming Publications is the latest company to unleash so-called “sensitivity readers” on beloved novels, resulting in the removal of racist language from the historical James Bond series.

A few weeks ago, it was children’s publisher Puffin that rewrote Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novels, rendering many of his most iconic passages unrecognizable in an attempt to mitigate ostensibly offensive content — and sparking a literary culture war. As a result of the backlash against this eerie iteration of censorship, other reprints will preserve Dahl’s books intact. We’ve yet to see whether there will be a similar backlash unto the same end for Fleming’s work.

Meanwhile, the political struggle over book banning rages on. The left insists that it is virtuous to “cancel” content and authors it deems offensive, while the right counters that it is imperative to restrict from schools content it deems age-inappropriate.

For many who cherish classic literature, sanitizing books like Dahl’s (which, for all their iconic prickliness, could hardly be called offensive by any rational person) and Fleming’s (which do reflect racist attitudes that were sadly common at the time when the novels were published) is almost as bad as banning them. 

But sanitizing a book is not almost as bad as banning it. It’s worse. 

When a book is banned, at least people know whether or not they read it. In fact, banned books often become forbidden fruit, and people have always had an Edenic compulsion to possess whatever is off limits. Banning a book has always served in part as a way to advertise it.  

The sanitization process, by contrast, leaves people believing that they’ve read a given work, when in fact they have read an imposter. Whereas banning a book asserts authority over what language and ideas people are allowed to consume, sanitizing literature is an attempt to erase that language and those ideas altogether, as though they never existed. The insidious lie that effectively erases a given work from history is far more sinister than simply hiding that work from view. What is hidden will eventually be found. What is erased is lost forever. 

When I was in middle school, my English class read “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” (1943) and “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960). Both are widely considered to be great American novels: the first a coming-of-age story about a poor Irish American girl growing up in early 20th century New York, and the second a Jim Crow-era tragedy in which an innocent Black man ends up dead despite the best efforts of a heroic white lawyer. Both contain fairly graphic sexual references, and the latter includes the most extreme racial slurs. 

I would understand parents today objecting, as some did in 1999, to the explicit language around these topics being shared in a school setting with 11 and 12-year-olds. I could respect parents requesting that these books be excised from a middle school curriculum, to be engaged in high school or not at all. There are, after all, many great novels, and not all of them contain this sort of radioactive material. 

What I would never permit in the case of my own children, however, is any engagement with sanitized versions of these novels. Maybe my sons won’t read “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” or “To Kill a Mockingbird at all”; but if they do, they’ll read them whole. 

To remove potentially sensitive material from these stories would strip them of all meaning. Coming of age tales in every era typically involve sex: Without its sexual content, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” ceases to encapsulate either that time in its heroine’s life or that time in the nation’s life as viewed through poverty in Brooklyn.

Furthermore, any story that turns on issues of race in the 1930’s South would be curated unto inauthenticity without the brutal language that was inextricable from the equally brutal reality of racial injustice that the book addresses. The truth that “To Kill a Mockingbird” portrays was ugly. Any sanitization of the novel that would make its language less ugly would also make it less true and thus less impactful.  

But the sanitizing of books damages more than art. It is a rejection of the intrinsic meaning in language, and thus a rejection of reason itself. To eradicate precision of expression – like, by changing out thousands of words across Dahl’s corpus for less potentially offensive (i.e., less meaningful) ones – is ultimately to eradicate subtlety of thought.

When you change the words in a book, it isn’t just an altered book; it is an inevitably impoverished book, and one with neither context nor history. It takes a flimsy intellect hell-bent on the creation of a monistic utopia to believe that we can retain the essence of a written work while altering its language.

A classic book is an entity, like a historical building, whose existence is inextricable from its totality. “To Kill a Mockingbird” isn’t just a novel but a living thing, rooted in the historical moment in which it was published and in the years since through which it has been loved, hated, contemplated and adapted for stage and screen. 

Sure, some things are, as the saying goes, “just window dressing.” But when we endeavor to change so much as the window dressing of some historical landmark, there are processes and procedures in place to ensure that we maintain the building’s original character and design. 

Why do we bother? Why not just make my native Philadelphia’s Independence Hall – along with the Declaration of Independence that was signed therein – look however suits our tastes in a given moment? Because we consider those walls and that document sacred. And they are.

But so is Shakespeare. So are Jane Austen and James Baldwin and Roald Dahl. And even Ian Fleming. Sure, there are differences of degree; but if we allow people to erase history by rewriting some seemingly lesser classic texts in explicit deference to this trendy perversion of tolerance, soon they will want to rewrite all of them, including the most acclaimed ones. 

Then, nothing will be sacred. 

While banning books is antithetical to the liberal intellect and the free society that many of us hold dear, the existence of forbidden literature is also the historical rule: Most societies have been neither liberal nor free. Sanitizing books such that they would provoke no one, however, is an offense against the human spirit itself (one that could only have been conjured in our modern age, when digital technology makes such a thing not just possible but simple). 

It is not just stupidly illiberal; it is creepily dystopian.  

Though soon enough, if we continue to accept the post-human services of so-called “sensitivity readers,” I guess we won’t know the difference. 

Elizabeth Grace Matthew is a freelance writer and editor, an America’s Future Foundation Writing Fellowship alumna and a Young Voices contributor.

Tags book banning Book bans Book bans James Bond

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