An app that bans the dirty words

Clean Reader’s blue dots do the censor’s job on sundry saucy classics


Ireland has a long history of literary censorship. With the establishment of the Free State in 1922, a Committee on Evil Literature was formed to tackle the matter of obscene publications. By the time the first official Censorship of Publications Act was brought into law in 1929, the definition of obscenity had extended to include information about family planning.

As many as 10,000 books were banned in Ireland before a system of appeal was put in place in 1967, limiting the period a book could be banned to 12 years.

Some of the notable titles that suffered the censors’ rigorous eye included Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy, John McGahern’s The Dark and Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls, which were all banned for their explicit sexual content. All three are now available to buy through Clean Reader, a new American app that sanitises standard texts, removing profanities for tender eyes.

Clean Reader offers cleaned-up versions of more than one million classic and contemporary titles, with an easy-to-use interface that gives instant access to its library. The app is free and titles are priced individually, from €1.99 to €12.99.

Once you download the app, you are offered a variety of options for reading: Clean, Cleaner or Squeaky Clean. When you purchase a book through the Clean Reader store, the app scans the text for swear words, racial slurs, religious insults and what its creators call “anatomical terms that can be a little racy.”

Offensive words are replaced with blue dots, which the reader can tap to reveal an approximation of the offending term (“witch” for “bitch”, for example) in case the meaning is not clear from the context or the reader is just curious. The current lexicon of licentiousness extends to more than 100 words and phrases. It is also possible to switch the profanity radar off and read the books in their uncensored depravity.

Today’s standards

As an exercise in exploring the app, its strengths and limitations, I downloaded The Country Girls to see how its “sexual explicitness” measured up against today’s standards.

The first blue redaction occurs on page 8. It doesn’t draw particular attention to itself – it is barely bigger than a full stop – but it does interrupt the flow of reading as you try to figure out the censored word and eventually succumb to the approximation, which doesn’t necessarily provide more clarity.

In this first instance, for example, Baba is recounting praying every night as an act of penance, because “she is afraid of (blue dot)”. Click the button, and Clean Reader suggests “heck”; double-check the original: the elided word is “hell”.

Now, Baba’s fear of hell doesn’t strike this reader as even potentially profane, so what Clean Reader reveals most clearly is the fact that censorship is cultural as well as literal, and obscuring offensive words does nothing to protect the reader from sophisticated or subversive ideas. This is borne out by the fact that there is not much difference between the original version and the “squeaky clean” version of O’Brien’s “notorious” book.

The most commonly elided word in The Country Girls turns out to be “God” (approximations include “gee” and “gosh”), followed by “damn”, which is rendered, naturally, as “darn”. “Sex”, which is mentioned only twice in the text, is redefined as “love”. There are three references to breasts, which are redefined as “chests”.

Different meanings

This last example is particularly amusing: only one of the three instances refers to female anatomy; the others refer to a chicken dish and a man’s coat pocket. Interestingly, several Irish and British profanities – “bloody” and “feck” among them – sneak in, even in the “squeaky clean” version.

This further reinforces the cultural subtleties of censorship. The app is American and draws its lexicon from American English. As a computer-generated reader, meanwhile, it takes a literal approach to language, plumbing it for its immediate meaning and failing to take into account other variables.

The app’s failures also remind us that, even in 1960s Ireland, the redacted words in the “squeaky clean” version of The Country Girls were not why the book was banned, although the scant mention of Baba’s breasts surely sent pulses racing in the censors’ office.

Rather, it was the overall context of the book’s portrayal of young women striving for personal and sexual independence. That message still resounds with clarity, decades and blue dots aside.

The fact that Clean Reader offers an unabridged version of the book alongside the cleaned-up version, however, puts the onus on the individual to determine what is appropriate. It also resolves the problems that ensue when you tamper with another’s text, as Ron Charles, a journalist with the Washington Post, discovered when he downloaded Colson Whitehead’s bildungsroman Sag Harbor.

Set in a middle-class African American enclave of Long Island, Whitehead uses popular slang to describe the coming of age and sexual awakening of an African American teen. Wiped of profanity by Clean Reader, Charles reports, the book becomes “downright mystical. In one particularly fine moment,” Charles reports, the narrator says, “I could hit your fat o o fine, you o Rerun from What’s Happening-looking o.”

Turn Clean Reader off to discover what the writer meant; if you dare.

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