Wokeness and the Adulteration of Literature

AP Photo/Andrew Burton, File

I love books. I love classic literature. Our rural Alaska home contains around a thousand books, and that’s not counting e-books. We read everything from Melville to Aristotle to Hemingway to Asimov.

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One could argue (and I would) that civilization began with writing. When people started keeping records of events, be they as routine as grain shipments to as magnificent as the Epic of Gilgamesh, writing and books are civilization. The invention of the printing press made books even more attainable, and now, with the rise of electronic books, the world’s library grows ever faster.

But there are people out there who want to change some of the great works of literature to conform to their own present-day hypersensitivities. Collecting old books, in fact, is doomed to be labeled “problematic.” Philip Kiszely, a senior fellow at the New Culture Forum and lecturer in performance and cultural histories at the University of Leeds, laid it out for us:

Our literary past is under assault. Trigger warnings are being slapped on reissued classics. Long-dead writers are being called out for offending contemporary sensibilities. And sensitivity readers are relentlessly filleting books of anything that upsets their identitarian worldview.

In February, the PC ghouls went for Roald Dahl, making ‘hundreds of changes’ to his beloved children’s books. Then, just days later, it emerged they had sanded off the edges of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels.

It didn’t stop there. In March, it was reported that Agatha Christie’s novels had been reworked to remove offensive language, such as insults and references to ethnicity. Two months later, Dr Emily Zobel Marshall, reader in postcolonial studies at Leeds Beckett University, called out Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit children’s books for cultural appropriation.

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If an author wants to revisit their own work, that’s fine. I think it’s of questionable value, but that’s fine. As an author myself, I follow Heinlein’s apocryphal advice to “never revisit old work,” but the author owns the story, and if they want to rewrite it to make it more acceptable to the wet-pants “woke” audience, fine. We aren’t talking about the authors here, though. It is important to note that not only have the authors described here shuffled off the mortal coil, but so has the copyright protection on their works, but don’t think for a moment that the “woke” will want to let something like copyright law stop them.

However, it’s not just the reworking of these classic novels that is of concern; it’s the attempts to stamp out the originals.

Buying old books is now a political act. And your personal library (even if it only runs to a couple of shelves) is no longer meaningless beyond your front door. If publishers and institutions want to distort our past, by bending its stories to fit this morning’s trendy narrative, then we should be angry enough to set it straight again. And home is the best place to do so.

One word of advice, though. Look for an alternative place to store your books, should the need arise. Who knows? In three years’ time the sensitivity police may well be empowered to enter your house and audit the content of your shelves. No kidding.

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This is in the UK, but there’s no reason to think it can’t happen here in the United States. Michigan has already passed a Constitutionally-dubious law prohibiting speech that can “hurt someone’s feelings.” The same people who think this law is a good idea are likely to also think that books that can “hurt someone’s feelings” should be illegal, as well. What then? Will Ray Bradbury’s famous novel be proven prophetic?

This is more than an attempt to sanitize literature. This is a strike at the heart of civilization itself. The printed word passes on knowledge and perspective; it gives us insights into the past, information about the present, and speculation about the future. Attempts to change that, to “correct” literature by imposing modern sensitivities on historical works, puts the very fabric of society’s intellectual growth in peril. If you’re against that, buy books. Preserve them. Whenever this “woke” madness passes, you’ll have reason to be glad you made the effort.

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