There’s More Than One Way to Burn A Book

The publisher of legendary author Roald Dahl (1916-1980) has decided to “clean up” his works, which means ruin them.

“Hundreds of changes” will be made to address “reader sensitivity”—meaning the words, behind the cover with his name on it, will no longer be his words.

That’s pretty sick, but hardly surprising anymore.

First, some examples: Dahl was a heroic pilot in WW2, and as recently as 2021 was the top-earning dead author in the world. His storytelling style was to use colorful words and vivid imagery, which endeared him to generations. “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, James and The Giant Peach” and “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” are a few of his bestsellers, but he also wrote copious adult fiction, from short stories to screenplays.

So, what are his 2023-era sins?

Well, the word “fat” is now gone from every page on which he used it. Remember Augustus Gloop from “Charlie”? Also gone are “crazy”, “white”, “black”, “ugly”. Some male characters are now female. Female villains are less mean. “Fathers” and “mothers” are now “parents”.

There’s much more, but you get the idea.

Like all of the stories kids like best, Dahl’s descriptions are, to use one writer’s word, “spiky”. They’re fun, they’re easy to see in your mind. Magic. Which is why they endure—all the best storytellers do.

You can only get away with stealth editing old books when not enough people are reading old books. When you’re familiar with how the usage of words, and different depictions of gender or race, have changed, it doesn’t shock you to suddenly come across the “N-word” in an otherwise staid British mystery novel from the ’50s, as I did the other day.

You read a book in the context of the time it was written. I loved the novel but I am not going to start using that word in my everyday, anymore than I’m going to kill a classmate like the story depicts. Would I have used it in the 1950s? I don’t know, but I would’ve heard it in common usage and it wouldn’t land like it does today. No one thinks reading an old Roald Dahl story makes us more racist or judgy, but we are pretending this is so.

The (pyro)maniacs who are doing this are taking advantage of how un-read most people are, or else they’d never get away with it.

Ray Bradbury, who wrote the great anti-censorship sci-fi story “Fahrenheit 451”, once famously said:

“There is more than one way to burn a book”.

We are seeing that now.

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