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Robert Klose is a four-time winner of the Maine Press Association award for opinion writing. His latest book is “Adopting Anton — A Single Man Seeks a Son in Ukraine.”
The effort to ban a laundry list of “offensive” books from America’s school libraries is just one example of where the right loses its mind. But in a nation that touts equal opportunity, the left is entitled to its own lunacy: expunging or altering words from literary works when those words are deemed — even by the least stretch of imagination — to be objectionable or, God forbid, exclusionary.
Exhibit A: The works of Roald Dahl (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “James and the Giant Peach,” etc.), in which words such as “fat,” “ugly,” and “crazy” have been either jettisoned or replaced (e.g., “fat” with “enormous”). But even more striking is the substitution of “mothers” and “fathers” with “parents” or “family.” (This calls to mind Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel, “Brave New World,” where the words “mother” and “father” were considered obscene.)
Is “protecting” children from “objectionable” books by banning them any different than “protecting” children from “objectionable” words by emasculating or deleting them?
I’m not convinced that concocting a world where the only color is beige, the only sounds are whispers, and the only food is pabulum will result in a more appealing or desirable world. Further, I’m not convinced that heading for the fainting couch if a child reads the word “ugly” is good for anybody, least of all the child.
It strikes me as odd that pedestrian words like “fat” are inciting well-meaning individuals to man (I mean “person”) the ramparts, when our media — to which children have free and ample access — are awash in violent, obscene, and sexualized language. (Am I alone in noticing how common and casual profanity has become?)
Beyond pretending that children’s literature can be scrubbed of words that imply that observable differences exist between individuals, there is the perhaps more problematic question of monkeying with literature to wrestle it into a form that strokes present-day sensibilities. By what right does one person alter the published work of another to conform to current tastes?
The late Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer once said that “Literature is the memory of humanity.” This means that every published work, every word, is a contribution to the collective sense of a culture at a point in time. The style, subject matter, and yes, the vocabulary, are part of the common wealth. The idea that small coteries of alarmists can indulge their revisionist preferences at the expense of the larger readership is, in a word, abhorrent. I don’t want them making such choices for me, however well-intentioned.
Roald Dahl is the least of it. Think of texts more deeply rooted in the American canon. If the ad hoc lit police are given free rein, then nothing will escape their terrible swift sword of indignation. It may be advisable to read “Huckleberry Finn” in Mark Twain’s original patois while one still can, while Jim is still a slave and not an “unpaid laborer.”
Rather than “protect” children from language, would it not be preferable to use language as a conduit for parent-child-teacher communication? A radical suggestion: Use the vocabulary of works of literature as teachable moments, as points of departure for meaningful conversations between adults and children. Words have power, and writers select them with great care, for their import, their power, their impact. I have no right to decide that an author should have written his/her work differently.
In the last analysis it comes down to a question: If, generation by generation, we continue to alter the wording of published texts to conform to current sensibilities (or whims), at what point does the text become unrecognizable as that of the original author?
Is this not a type of theft of intellectual property?