What the Frick: Thoughts on the Clean Reader App

Until I was in my mid-20s, the worst thing I ever said was, “Oh my gosh.”

No “damn,” no “hell,” and I got dirty looks from my mom when I said something “sucked.” I grew up very religious, in the kind of religion that rejects premarital sex, alcohol, mini-skirts, and swearing.

I also grew up a reader. I started on the adult section at the library in 8th grade, but I tended to read almost entirely classics or Agatha Christie novels. In retrospect, I can tell you that it’s because these books were safe. Any physical shenanigans took place between the lines and kisses were saved to celebrate engagements.

In college, I started to move into modern fiction, both literary and genre. It got difficult pretty fast. So often, a book I found riveting and fascinating would be “ruined” because of a sex scene or a plethora of profanity.

It was a legitimate problem for someone who found fulfillment in books. I didn’t know how to deal with it.

So I understand why the Clean Reader app exists. The app lets you download books and sanitizes them for you. It can’t get the sex and violence, but it can get profanity. What was once damn is now a dot. I think my younger self would’ve found real value in this. I also think she would’ve felt profoundly disturbed by it on some level.

I don’t know if my discontent around sanitizing, even when profanity caused me pain, was an inherent character trait or a sign of the decisions I’d make later in life that would lead me away from my upbringing. It’s hard to say. But I would have known that something wasn’t quite right because I lived through something similar.

When I was in college, our campus movie theater was hugely popular because they played R-rated movies. We weren’t allowed to watch them. But the theater showed the sanitized airline versions. I remember during Jerry Maguire there was a scene that made no sense because they bleeped so many words and had to cut something out. I remember seeing Air Force One, watching Harrison Ford walk into a section of the plane filled with bad guys, and then a jump cut to the room full of dead guys and Harrison Ford walking out.

I’d only been there a short time when the theater came under scrutiny, and they ditched the R-rated movies all together. But demand was still there, and then came a new video store that rented sanitized R-rated movies. And with all this came a lot of conversations about artistic freedom and censorship.

When someone makes a movie and you buy it, it’s yours to do with as you like. You can cut something out and that’s your right. The same is true for books. Your property is yours.

Still, a movie that’s been altered isn’t one that’s seen as it was meant to be seen. It’s one that’s somehow lacking, that will never be perfect. Of course, the easy answer would’ve been to skip all R-rated movies. I never rented any of the sanitized movies. I did start going to R-rated movies in the theater alone, since I knew no one would go with me. I started to confront the works of art I loved and struggled with. All I knew was I needed to figure it out for myself.

But movies were easier. They have clear ratings, they tell you exactly what you’re in for, and it’s easy to say, “Nah, I think I’ll pass.” Books don’t have any ratings. Back then I never knew what I’d find and it was difficult to screen in any real way.

I was not supposed to read books with swearing or sex. And yet my favorite novel was Lolita. It basically passed my requirements, the sex there is implied more than stated. But it’s Lolita. It’s about pedophilia and obsession and lots of bad and unhealthy things. The kind of things that should have turned me off from the book, and yet I treasured it.

I had trouble imagining my life without a book like Lolita. And that’s one of the reasons why I’m not religious anymore.

The honest truth is that if Lolita had been laced with profanity and sex, I would’ve had an entirely different experience. One could argue that it would be an entirely different book. Maybe some books wouldn’t suffer from adding or removing cursing or a sex scene or two. But some are altered in a way that’s impossible to measure.

Last week I was listening to an audiobook. A character swore, another character swore, and I had a sudden flashback to what my response would have been all those years ago. I would’ve flinched a little every time. I would’ve cringed a little every time. I would’ve wondered why the author did this to me, why they couldn’t just write this scene without the curse words so that I could enjoy it.

It’s a lot easier now that I don’t have content requirements for books. I’m happy with the completely pure and with smutty erotica. As long as it’s good, I’m up for the journey.

But I can’t forget the way it felt when a book I was loving let me down by throwing in something that offended me. I can’t forget how much of the world seemed to have drawn a target on my chest and threw anything they could find right at my brain.

Ratings make me feel squicky. The Clean Reader app makes me feel squicky. And yet those memories are still so strong and I know how much easier my life as a reader would’ve been if books had ratings or if I’d had access to the Clean Reader app.

I don’t know what the answer is. I can’t help but think that if it makes reading a little better for someone, Clean Reader can’t be an entirely bad thing.

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