General Thoughts · Opinion

When Do Books Cross the Line from Outdated to Unacceptable?

What does it take to make you put down a book and walk away, never to resume reading again?

A couple weeks ago, I was reading a book that was less than steller. The first chapter had seemed exceptionally funny and well-written, but within a few pages of where the Amazon preview had ended (and I had purchased), the same book devolved from silly murder mystery sex farce to a terrible succession of badly-written sex scenes that only became more outlandish with each turn of the page.

It was such a stark change, I thought perhaps I’d misread the description. I turned to Goodreads, but there was the same summary I’d seen before. Irritated and out two whole dollars, I began scrolling through the various reviews only to come across one that fascinated me. It referenced a scene in the book that involved a character of ambiguous gender and a running gag of other characters being unsure whether to refer to the first as a he or a she. The reviewer commented that though this was probably perfectly fine joke in the yonder year of 2006, transgender rights and queer rights as a whole had come far since then, and this gag was no longer humorous or in good taste. Following it appearing, the reviewer had ceased to see the charm of said book and had put it down.

I found myself nodding along. Yes, that would have been funny then. No, it isn’t very funny now. The world has changed; ten short years means this is no longer an acceptable line of joke for today’s audiences. But this is a book with a living author who may revisit his work and revise it accordingly. We can shun it as being not actually that long ago, and advise the author to change his wary ways.

What about the classics, though? What do you do with an old book that’s rather, well. That’s rather like great-uncle-so-and-so who’s ninety-five years old and deaf in one ear and likes to rhapsodize at length why the economic issues of today come down to a certain immigrant group?

Yeah, those books.

We all know the famous example of The Book With the Word We Don’t Say, the one that sends classrooms debating and parents fretting: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The book itself is classic Mark Twain, witty prose mixed with both action and reason to make a book that real, live teens and preteens still read for pleasure today.

But it also contains The Word, and so every so often, someone tries to put out an edition that changes The Word to “slave” or “black person” or whatever they deem appropriate for today’s audiences, while crowds of protesters poo-poo them because “it’s literature” is apparently an excuse.

It’s a bit of a nasty conundrum. It’s a classic! You can’t change a classic! Oh yes we can.

Can we?

You probably already have an opinion formed on Finn, so let’s try a different book, one you’ve probably never heard of, and you can tell me whether it’s outdated or still has merit.

I’m a Wodehouse fan; I think old PG wrote hilarious books and I absolutely adore Jeeves and Wooster in both their novel and TV formats. Every so often I pick up one of his other book and find myself enjoying it.

Except one book. I forget the name, but it was a “rummy” adventure of newspapermen in New York City doing a piece on the conditions of tenements and fighting off a gang while they were at it. The book was not Wodehouse’s finest work, but I was rather puttering along when I came to a scene where the gang was closing in. As the gang included a person of African decent, the two main characters began to discuss whether black people actually got hurt if you hit them with a length of two-by-four. Only, of course, they weren’t saying black people.

It was at that point that I put the book down. It wasn’t the words that did it—I’d been ignoring various colloquial allusions to people of Polish and German and Spanish and Jewish ethnicity for a while now—but rather the discussion in which it was being used. It was that, for all I cared, the two mains could be whacked off the side of the building with their own weapon and I’d cheer for it. That was what made me stop wanting to read the book.

Would you have stopped there? Or would you have ignored this one paltry scene and continued to read a humorous account of newspapermen in New York who had common-for-their-time sentiments regarding others? After all, that’s how people thought then. Well, some people, anyway.

Remember, some people think anything, anytime.

With Huckleberry Finn, the conflict is a little different. I like Huck; I feel that he quite respects his friend Jim and wants the best for him. Unlike in the awful farce or the dated Wodehouse, this book contains sentiments we still grapple with today. Clearly there is merit.

And so the argument rages: do we use the word Huck would use today, or do we keep the word that was commonly used then? Or do we shrug that the merit is nice but not enough and cease to read the book at all?

It’s something that everybody feels differently about. The march of time brings new ideas and leaves us feeling rather embarrassed about the old ones, whether we were making fun of their lack of clear gender or pondering the humanity of various races.

I put down Wodehouse; the sentiments meant as humor not only failed to hit their mark, but became a mark against the book as a whole. I read Finn, The Word and all, because I see no point in changing bits. Either I’m done with all of it, or I’ll read it as it is, uncomfortable words and all.

After all, Huckleberry Finn is about uncomfortable topics. If I’m looking for cozy, probably I’d best steer elsewhere. Discomfort should be confronted and examined head-on.

And so we return to the idiotic sex farce. It failed because it’s not a piece of historical literature meant to make us think; it’s a silly bit of story about a lot of arse. And so, in my search of something amusing to read, I will pass it by and find something better written, and which perhaps even contains a plot.

Plot-ish, at least.

What are your thoughts on reading books like Huckleberry Finn?  Where do you drawn the line between historical works that are worth reading despite flaws and books that have had their time and are best forgotten? Have you ever found yourself ceasing to read a book for similiar reasons? Let us know in the comments below!

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8 thoughts on “When Do Books Cross the Line from Outdated to Unacceptable?

  1. You pose a very interesting question here, one which i’d not considered before. I don’t recall ever putting a book down out of disgust like that, but discomfort due to my modern way of thinking is definitely happening more often. The first time I remember that happening was when I read Bram Stoker’s ‘Dracula’. I found myself perplexed by the three simultaneous marriage proposals to Lucy, and then annoyed at the surprise of the same men when Mina showed her intelligence. Bram Stoker himself may have found that kind of thing surprising, but I found that it removed me from the story somewhat. Not so extreme an example as yours, but that kind of thing gives me pause when I’m reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s definitely a topic that’s been updated since so many of the “classics” were written: attitudes towards women and their portrayal. Personally, I avoid a huge amount of authors, like Faulkner, because of their writing of women. To me, it’s not worth it to feel personally attacked when I read them. In that way, I’m sure a black American would read Huckleberry Finn differently than a white person, and perhaps decide differently than I did.

      I think we each have to decide how much it’s worth us to delve into those topics when we’re reading. Are we looking to have a debate within ourselves, or do we want to escape to a world where other topics are on the table? Excellent point.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I can say that I see it both ways on the Huck Finn argument. Firstly, forgetting history causes it to repeat. Alternately, we can teach history without resulting to historical terminology.

    I’ll say this, I have read A Game of Thrones twice, and I won’t ever pick up the rest of the series. The reason is, I can’t get passed the graphically described sex scenes with a 13 year old girl and a grown man. I mean, quite a bit of those scenes are rape until a maid comes along and says “I’ll teach you how to do it and it will be better.”

    I hear the argument of “that’s how things were.” Yes, it is. Some places in the world are still that way.There is a difference between “this happened” and “let me tell you all the details of how it happened.” I mean, in one of the Little House on the Prairie books Laura and a friend discuss how another girl was only twelve and her parents married her off because they were poor. We all know what that means, we don’t need to see the graphic details of what happens next.

    I watch the show, and it only confirms I won’t read the books because of things that happen to others, some of which get glossed over on the show I’m guessing are graphic in the books.

    They aged the girl up in the show, but I still don’t see it as a “love story.” No. It’s the story of a girl who gets abused and then emotionally attaches to her abuser, because that’s what happens.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m not a GoT fan–books or show–for a lot of reasons, and that’s one of them. You hit the nail on the head in saying “There is a difference between ‘this happened’ and ‘let me tell you all the details of how it happened.'” There are also ways to depict problematic events as true to what the character is thinking while still pointing out that they are problematic, and I don’t think those books do that, whatever a lot of fans say. Which brings us back to Huck Finn, which I believe does manage just that.

      I think for Huckleberry Finn in the classroom, it’s a great opportunity to talk about the changing of language and attitude, and to address a lot of the discomfort. A teaching moment, if you will. But what people want to do in the privacy of their heads is their own business.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I believe the Wodehouse book you refer to was Psmith, Journalist. I don’t recall coming across the word, but I have not read that book for many years — It was an early Wodehouse book, written after a visit to America, full of local language and colour. He knew his strengths and limitations, and he didn’t return to that style of writing in any substantial way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, that was the one. I read it after I read one about the Psmith when he was younger (I think that was the name.) I adore Wodehouse, but couldn’t finish that one. Personally I’m quite glad he left off with that style of story.

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