Bringing Books Up To Date

I read two interesting bits of bookish news yesterday. The first was about the removal of the “n word” from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. The second was about the modernization of Lois Duncan’s books. Both of these essentially involve bringing the books up to date for contemporary audiences. However, I think there are some important distinctions to be made.

I went to Elmira College, which was like home of the Mark Twain obsession. I had Mark Twain shoved at me from every direction, so truthfully I’ve been a bit done with the guy, and despite all the hype I haven’t been able to read volume 1 of his autobiography quite yet. Even so, I have a lot of respect for Mark Twain. I find it a bit upsetting that his work is being tinkered with. There is a part of me that appreciates that removal of a racially pejorative word. Perhaps this editing will allow the book to be read by a wider audience because the censors will have less to argue about. Here’s the thing, though: What I really disagree with is the censorship, not the word that is being censored. If I was going to fight the battle, it is the censors I would want to change, not the language of this iconic text.

Allow me to state the obvious: Books are made up of words. Lots and lots of words. If the author is good, and I would say that we can pretty much universally agree that Mark Twain was damn good at what he did, then these words carry an intentionality behind them. Mark Twain didn’t just use an ethnic slur in his book for the fun of it. I mean, the word is apparently in there 219 times. I think that suggests he put it there on purpose.

While the n word is not one that I throw around in my personal vocabulary, nor do I appreciate hearing in modern contexts, I respect the cultural baggage it carries. Mark Twain’s use of this word is important in this book because it tells the readers a great deal about the time period, the cultural context, and the attitude towards slaves. To replace this word with “slave” 219 times takes something away; the fact is that the replacement word just doesn’t carry the same emotional impact. The n word is a slap in the face, it has some punch to it, it makes you uncomfortable when you read it. And it should.

The author’s language has often forced the book out of the classroom. Clearly that was not the case anywhere I went to school because I’ve been required to read Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn several times. Interestingly, it hasn’t made me racist nor has it made me incorporate racial slurs into my speech. I don’t think it has done that for anybody I know who has read it. In fact, it tends to do just the opposite. If the books are taught well, the n word can become an excellent discussion topic. It teaches us about the power of language and about the historical period in which these books take place. The vocabulary of the book, beyond just this single word, gives it its authenticity.

Frankly, I just can’t even imagine having the guts to mess with Mark Twain.

On the other hand, author Lois Duncan has been involved in the updating and reprinting of her own books. Little, Brown Books for Young Readers has been reissuing her books with a face lift. (Can I just say how much I really really want these?!) Duncan was one of my favorite authors growing up, and I still love reading and rereading all of her books. I can appreciate the changes to her texts much more primarily because the author is involved in making them. Duncan herself is modernizing the dialogue, shifting some of the historical references to more contemporary examples, and changing the technology to reflect what is currently available.

While I think the books are just as enjoyable without the “21st century tweaking,” as the article calls it, I respect the desire to make the texts even more relatable to modern teens. I probably wouldn’t feel the same way if somebody else was responsible for the editing, but because Duncan is involved in the project I know that the authorial intent stands. Of course, this can open up a giant can of worms when it comes to whether authorial intent is significant once a book is out of the author’s hands, but I think that really has more to do with reader interpretation than editing another author’s work.

One of the other reasons that I can stand by these revisions more is that each reissue includes interviews with Duncan in which she specifically talks about the changes made to the texts. This is also part of why I would love to get my hands on copies of these books, though I will continue to love and hold onto my originals. I think it will be incredibly interesting to read Duncan’s explanations of why she made the changes she did and what impact she believes the changes will have. I hope that these new editions do bring Duncan a wider audience.

I’m curious to hear what others think about both types of revisions. Feel free to change my mind on either front! Do you agree or disagree with the changes being made? Where should we draw the line when it comes to changing older texts? What similarities and differences do you see between these two cases? Are there other examples of these kinds of “modernization” that you can share? Would you buy the revised copies, or would you prefer the original text?


17 Responses to "Bringing Books Up To Date"

  • I like your comment on how these words describe the time period and the cultural views at that time. I think that is part of what makes a “classic” book a classic. Yes, there are words that are offensive and we no longer use them, but guess what? There was a time when they WERE used. If you censor or re-write those classic books you’re sort of erasing your own history. This language, these ideas they were once just every day norms. This does not make them right, but deleting them from your history isn’t right either.

    I have never read Lois Duncan, but I think her books were less…what’s the word, rebellious? Not right, but tamer, mayhaps? So there’s nothing to censor, just tweak. Although I STILL feel that this is erasing history. Just because I grew up with a VCR and not a TiVo doesn’t mean it didn’t happen and readers today need to know there were things that were different in the past.

    I don’t know if any of this even makes sense. But I’m commenting anyhow. 😉

    1 Cat @ Beyond Books said this (January 5, 2011 at 10:00 AM)

    • Cat, I think that makes a lot of sense, and I agree with you about erasing history.

      One of the changes being made to one of Duncan’s books is referring to the current war instead of the Vietnam War. I questioned that one a little bit. Certainly teens now will get it more when talking about a war that is in the here and now, but shouldn’t they also understand the importance of the Vietnam War? I hope that is something that will be addressed in the discussion guides and interviews in those books.

      2 Melanie said this (January 5, 2011 at 10:03 AM)

      • Switching the wars? Seriously? Hello, ERASING HISTORY? Come on now, these things happened, just because they were in the past doesn’t mean the kids won’t “get” it. Don’t even get me started on how the Vietnam war was a real war unlike what people are calling a war now.


        I just don’t get why society wants us to only look at today and forward and forget the past. Disgusts me.

        3 Cat @ Beyond Books said this (January 5, 2011 at 10:21 AM)

  • i don’t know that the change in huck finn “modernizes” it so much as it changes the meaning and intent dramatically. the word slave denotes the practice of trafficking in human lives while the word nigger is an epithet created to promote the idea of a a race of people seen as less than human. twain’s use was deliberate, he was showing the world a picture of the south at a time when slaves were viewed as property and not considered human. the word has precise usage at that time and the replacement word “slave” turns twain’s dark satiric commentary into a quaint and genteel notion that overlooks and ignores the truth behind america’s racist history.

    lois duncan revising her own work for contemporary audiences is no comparison in my mind. i’ve seen published authors revise work in their published work just before giving readings. changing details of technology and dialog is hardly the same sort of revisionism that undercuts the actual point being made in the text; duncan’s changes do not significantly alter the intent of their original as the changes in twain do.

    4 david e said this (January 5, 2011 at 10:10 AM)

    • I really appreciate your differentiation of the denotation of the two words, as well as your own incredible blog post on the topic.

      I should also have mentioned, in case people didn’t read the article, that the word “Injun” was changed to “Indian,” again replacing a demeaning and dehumanizing word and thereby erasing the historic view of Native Americans.

      5 Melanie said this (January 5, 2011 at 10:20 AM)

  • I don’t think I’ve come across one favourable article/blog in regards to the Mark Twain issue. As you said, it creates discussion and awareness. Whitewashing it from history is yet another way of selectively viewing the past. We always say that the victors write the history books and they do. However, the literature should be left well alone.

    I must admit, I don’t know Lois Duncan, but the major difference that she’s been involved in the changes can’t be underestimated. Twain didn’t have that luxury and, like you, I’m amazed someone had the guts to do this.

    6 Lucy said this (January 5, 2011 at 10:15 AM)

  • In their effort to make the book more politically correct, those who are changing it are taking away part of what makes it a classic. People have done the same to many of the works of William Shakespeare, but I think that was more to make the books more readable. I am accepting of that. The Lois Duncan changes are similar to the Shakespeare ones, I believe.
    The idea of making any classic PC by getting rid of “bad words” seems inherently wrong to me. I would give these changes two thumbs down.

    7 Chuck said this (January 5, 2011 at 10:19 AM)

  • Totally agree with you, Melanie. Twain used the n word deliberately, and it was not just because he liked it. It’s there for a reason. And with Lois Duncan, it’s like when Judy Blume updated Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, because it made no damn sense to modern readers and the whole point of her book was to help girls who were worried or excited or just wanted to learn about getting their period. (I don’t know about you but I had no idea what she was talking about when she mentioned the pad belts.)

    8 Tahleen said this (January 5, 2011 at 10:33 AM)

    • Yah, what on earth is a pad belt?

      9 April (Books&Wine) said this (January 5, 2011 at 11:48 AM)

      • I have no idea. I have also never read that book. I know, I’m ashamed. I just finally read Forever in the last couple months. I totally failed at reading the YA classics while growing up.

        10 Melanie said this (January 5, 2011 at 12:00 PM)

  • I agree with your statement about how the “n word” is representing that time period & that Twain was using it in a way to show just how damaging that word can be. I think it’s wrong to change his words today. They are a part of history. I feel like censoring the word for today’s readers is only masking what really happened & not recognizing that yes, we did in fact live during a time when people were talked down upon based on their skin color. It’s absurd & wrong. If someone takes offense to it, then simply do NOT read it. And if you can’t understand WHY he chose to write that word, then maybe you should start with a simpler book.. like The History of America!

    Great discussion topic, Melanie.

    11 Ginger @ GReads! said this (January 5, 2011 at 10:41 AM)

  • Great post!

    I am not down with taking out these words. Do I like those words? NO! But I just don’t get how you can rationalize taking them out? Are we going to just pretend that some unfortunate things and attitudes were a part of our history and culture? There is a great platform for learning and discussing social issues with books like this and I think it’s so wrong to take out these words that are reflective of the time and the attitudes and what Twain was getting across just because they aren’t PC terms now. History isn’t always PC. That’s how we grow from it…

    I don’t know how I feel about your second part of this. I haven’t thought about it too much. However, at least the author is involved and their work isn’t just being hijacked for censorship sake.

    12 Jamie said this (January 5, 2011 at 1:12 PM)

  • I think updating books is fine – when it’s a simple process of making it more current and not when you’re changing a classical text. A classical text is more history and if you change one, what’s to stop someone from changing them all. It’s a VERY slippery slope. Plus, the word was there for a reason. It’s a great teaching tool to talk about the history of the time period and the social aspects of the past. I think changing Huck Finn is a bad move….

    ps. I have an award for you on my blog:

    13 jennifer aka yabooknerd said this (January 5, 2011 at 4:47 PM)

  • ok, for those of you that want to know, a pad belt was something needed to hold quite bulky pads in place when girls had their period. There was no adhesive at that time. One attached the pad to a belt to hold it and they were not very comfortable as you can imagine.

    14 Judy said this (January 5, 2011 at 9:21 PM)

  • I think it’s just another quirk assisting in the evolution, or de-evolution, of our society’s educational norms.

    As a teacher, I LOVE reading classics with my students and exploring why an author chose the words they did. Teaching children how to read is more than just decoding the letters on a page, something the bureaucrats sitting in the district offices (or the trolls that dwell in censorship caves) never seem to get. I spent an entire hour yesterday reading “The Wednesday Surprise,” modeling how to read and the BIGGEST part – also the hardest – was stopping while reading to think aloud, to question what was happening and why the author chose to write the story how she did. I use picture books like this to practice those difficult skills before trying them on a meaty book. Those same kids are now reading “White Fang,” and will have to use the authors words to take a thriller story about a dog into a statement about civilization and the human condition. It takes place in the 1930s, sure, so OH MY GOD – the kids had to do a research activity before we started to improve their background knowledge. When did knowledge become a bad thing?

    The thing that makes classics, you know, CLASSIC, is that they do that automatically – they have such novel or shocking ideas in them that they jump up in your face and force you to think about some touching and not-so-fun aspects of life. Taking out words that force you to think is down right butchering the author’s craft, especially when it’s done post-mortem. Having also attended the Twain U with Melanie, I feel confident saying Sam Clemens would give those publishers some even MORE interesting adjectives in response. As for Duncan, I’m not familiar with her at all. I do think it is a separate case, though, if the author is involved in the process.

    Censorship, while often the product of genuine concern and pure motivation, is a poison to the intellect of the masses. As the cliche goes, history repeats itself. That’s why we need to remember and learn from it. That’s why we need to face it, not hide from it.

    So, basically, in a nut shell – I’d pile the new copies up in a lovely pile, pour some gas all over it, and have a nice, toasty bonfire. This may have been the product of three hours worth of meetings with fancy, school officials that want me to focus on my AYP/NCLB data instead of actually working with and reaching children.


    15 Sara said this (January 5, 2011 at 10:00 PM)

  • So glad you are posting about this. My best friend is actually a very educated black woman and she gave me her two cents about this a few days ago. She completely disagrees with the removal of the ‘n’ word because it takes out an element of the context of the book, namely, how blacks were viewed then. When she read this book, she was not offended by the word and feels as if keeping it how it is will continue to teach us about how life was then. I agree with everything that she says.

    16 Amber said this (January 8, 2011 at 10:08 AM)

  • Congratulations! I’ve awarded you the Stylish Blogger award!

    17 Thinking Cat said this (January 8, 2011 at 10:32 PM)