Dr. Bowdler

Well, delicate readers, the American Library Association has declared this week as Banned Books Week.  As you might suppose, most banned books are books aimed at young adults or younger, and the parents or other elders have determined that it is better to hide certain ideas than to bother to explain them.  There's a post on our Facebook page about banned books and the anti-celebration of the concept.

The purpose of this blog is to talk about a related, and more insidious topic.  Sometimes, rather than ban a book entirely, those who know what's good for us just alter the book and present that more appropriate version to us.  Sometimes we are told about the redaction and sometimes it's presented as the original.  The best word I know for the practice is bowdlerism.  The eponym comes from Dr. Thomas Bowdler, an English physician who, early in the 19th century, created a family-friendly version of Shakespeare, suitable for the women and children of that era.  He also did an expurgated version of Gibbons' Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.  

Not surprisingly, the Victorian Era was the height of bowdlerism, as publishers edited the text to modify or eliminate references to sex -- including references to underwear -- or to drinking, or taking the Lord's name in vain, or to whatever someone found offensive at the time.  Many 19th-century editions of earlier publications -- think Tom Jones, Pepys, Tristram ShandyMoll Flanders -- were trimmed to lose much of the spirit, character and meaning.Of course, many authors self-regulated.  And others would never write that #$%$#@**& stuff anyway, being too high-minded.  

It's easiest to purify dead authors, but even live ones submit in order to be published.  My parents and grandparents subscribed to Readers' Digest and to Readers' Digest Condensed Books.  Given the basically Christian family-values outlook of Readers' Digest's publishers and editorial board, I suspect that they weren't just removing subplots and lengthy descriptions of mountains and clouds.  But the authors went along, didn't they?

I'm just thinking here about the English-speaking world.  In places where we think freedom of speech and freedom of religion and freedom of though exist, it's easy (or maybe a little lazy) to think we're doing better than those under the thumb of totalitarian regimes.  We know thought control occurs there, but we assume that (as Zappa says) it can't happen here.

Luckily, the world has changed and we've outgrown this sort of evisceration of literature, and the electronic world makes original versions available to everyone.  Well, almost.  Apparently, Kindle and similar devices have determined that some books can be made more palatable to wider audiences if some subtle alterations are made.  I can't say I know the details, but apparently it's true.  The effort is not really one of morality, but of marketability.  Is that worse?  This isn't just a plug to buy more real books from a real bookstore-- although, God knows, you should -- but a caution that we easily fall victim to this sort of controlling of our ideas.  

To read more about the topic, read Noel Perrin's 1969 book, Dr. Bowdler's Legacy.  He ends with the comment that we are past all this nonsense -- until the next time around.