"If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales." Albert Einstein

11 March 2015

The Clean Reader App

The library world always has something semi-controversial to discuss, and this week's topic is the new Clean Reader app, an app that will allow the reader to "clean up" books by removing objectionable content. It seems the creators were motivated to make this app for their daughter, who reads well above grade level but isn't quite ready for the adult-level content in many books.

Many people have opinions about this app, and naturally many librarians are concerned about making censorship so simple. It is likely, however, that certain demographics of people are rejoicing over the creation of such an app. 

I used to be one of those people.

For nearly a dozen years of my adult life, not to mention most of my childhood, I was part of a very strict religious denomination which borders on cult status. In addition to the strict dress code (long skirts for women, shorts and t-shirts over swimwear, nothing ever showing a knee), I was not allowed to go to a movie theater, drink a glass of wine, listen to any music not approved by the church, or watch R-rated movies in my home. I was told that reading Harry Potter would make me worship Satan, and for a while I actually believed it, too. Both as a child and as an adult I thought that crap, shut up, stupid, and suck were horrible, nasty swear words. I tried not to think about what words might be worse. 

My love of reading was not hampered by these rules, however.  There were lots of things for me to devour.  I read a lot of classics; for a while I dabbled in Christian fiction; I loved Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I read a lot of children's books, most of which were fairly clean. And when I did read something else, I always stopped when there was too much foul language or if I came upon a bedroom scene.  Sometimes I could skip those parts and continue the book; other times I simply had to throw the book out. As a member of this religious sect, I was encouraged to think this way and to keep my mind "pure."  Whenever I read something that contained an "objectionable element," as I then called what I now say are simply red flags, I felt horridly guilty for even letting that word/idea/sentence enter my mind. 

So I can definitely understand how the creators of this app and many of my former colleagues and neighbors would desire and appreciate the ability to sanitize their reading. We had already been "clean reading" via Sharpie for many years, and this app would combine a love of technology with our devotion to purity.

And yet.

Part of the reason I left this particular sect behind, one of the major deciding factors when I chose to start my adult life over, was that our group lived in a bubble of sorts where new ideas were scary, bad, and discouraged.  My students, my colleagues, my neighbors - we all lived very sheltered lives because so little was able to penetrate the bubble of purity surrounding us.  This may mean we were safe, but it also means we had very little choice and very little exposure to the wide world outside.  Like the people in Lowry's The Giver, we were seeing only in black and white because we chose to stay that way.  

There's nothing wrong with finding a set of principles to believe in and sticking with them, but when alternate theories and ideas become dangerous if they are not sanitized, it's time to reconsider why we are doing what we do. When I had to encourage my students not to read Harry Potter because the supposed link to Satan worship was much more important than the themes of loyalty, bravery, and love, and when I had to put down the James Patterson or Jeffrey Deaver paperback because the church-imposed profanity limit was reached, that was a sign that something was seriously wrong. 

When I assist patrons who are looking for clean reads for their kids, there are a plethora of resources I can use, among them the red flags lists I place in every review on this blog. I can also easily turn to classics like the ones I read when I myself was looking for clean reads. I can't say that I would in good conscience ever suggest this particular app to them.  It's one thing to read a book and choose to stop because of what you see contained therein; it's another thing entirely to read a bowdlerized version of the book and pretend you're reading the story the author meant to tell. 


Anonymous said...

One hundred percent agreed.

Beth said...

Well said. Our goal should always be to help our patrons find the right books for them, not bend the wrong ones to their will.