The Chronological Cultural Context Conundrum

The Chronological Cultural Context Conundrum

Is being offended a choice?

When you read a book, you may run across something that would really offend you if somebody said it to you.

However, somebody didn’t say it to you.  It wasn’t said to anybody in particular.  It might even have been said one hundred years ago.

Does that make a difference?

Are you able to read a book, come across an epithet (racial or otherwise), a demeaning portrayal of a woman, a homophobic characterization, and just shrug it off?

That’s a question that has become particularly relevant in the world of e-books.

I considered writing about this in my more general interest blog, The Measured Circle, but the issue is particularly acute in e-books.

In a way dissimilar to movies or TV, e-books have recently made available works from another time.  Since books first published in the US prior to 1923 are in the public domain, they are no longer under copyright protection.  Anyone can publish them, without getting (or paying for) permission from the author.

That means we see a lot of books that were written in another time, decades, even more than a century ago.

The culturally accepted norms were different then.   Cole Porter may have said in 1934 that Anything Goes, that wasn’t true then and it isn’t true now.  What specifically goes changes.  While many people would suggest that violence and sexual content has become more graphic and more acceptable, derogatory treatement of women and minorities may have become less so.

While I like to think that’s because people have actually become more willing to think of others as equals, there may be a simple financial reason.  As minorities and women have gained more purchasing power (and more influcence over what purchases are being made), publishers may have become more sensitive to offending those possible customers.

So, one reason why you are seeing more things that may be offensive to modern sensibilities is that you are seeing more things from earlier times.

Another issue is the idea of “bundles”.  Since production and distribution costs are very different, it’s essentially as inexpensive (once you have the files) to distribute fifteen books in one file as it is to distribute a single book.  If you have to look at the costs of putting out each individual paperbook, you might not release a controversial title in a series.  The sales might be lower for that one, and that could affect your sales on the others.

The other issue with bundles is that you want to distinguish your version from other versions, and one way to do that is to make yours more inclusive.

Let’s take a particular example.

I’m a big fan of the Land of Oz.  I’ve paid more than fifty dollars for a single volume.  I have copies in my collection that are more than one hundred years old.  The series was started by L. Frank Baum, but continued by others until there were forty books in the “canon”.

After the books fell into the public domain, other authors put their own spin on it…from Philip Jose Farmer’s A Barnstormer in Oz to Gregory Maguire’s Wicked.

Many readers took the journey through the land with a nice trade paperback reprint series which came out mostly in the 1980s.  It included titles which were (and are) still under copyright protection…it was an authorized set.


That reprint series did not include an Oz book by L. Frank Baum.  The book features a popular character who appears in several other volumes, the punning and pompous professor, H.M. Wogglebug, T.E.

Why did they leave it out?

It’s based on a stage play, but that’s not enough of a reason.  Stage plays were part of Oz from the beginning.

Presumably, it’s because it is largely based on ethnic humor.  The Wogglebug has come to the United States, and encounters a number of stereotyped characters.  Perhaps most significantly, it contains what we now call “the N word”.

That particular word is a good example of a real problem.  I can’t hear (or read) that word without being pulled up short.  In the case of The Woggle-Bug Book, it is used in a dehumanizing way, a way that we would clearly find objectionable today.

It struck me differently when used in Trent’s Last Case by E. C. Bentley, which I was reading as part of The Classic Mystery Collection (which is more than 100 works for a dollar).   I was really impressed while I was going through that book…I thought the writing was very good.

Then, it happened.  In a simple throwaway (one character recalling a song another character sang), the N word appears.  It isn’t used in a deliberately insulting manner.  There isn’t a context denigrating a group of people.

Yes, it still bothered me that it was there.  That is partially because of the associations I have with the word, of course…associations shaped by the time in which I live and the way it has been used in my lifetime.

Should I forgive the word being in that book because of the Chronological Cultural Context?

I’m not completely sure.  I definitely would want anybody to know that it is in the book before they bought it.  I tend to be an all or nothing person…if that word is wrong in some contexts, I’ll tend to think it is wrong in all contexts.  If a young person read that book, they’d be desensitized to a potentially explosive word.

Should a book be banned because it has a particular word?  I’d say no.  I think if people want to read books that include insulting words or obscenities (I don’t use the F word myself, but many people do and find it acceptable in literature), I think that shouldn’t be a government decision.

I do think they should be made aware of it ahead of time, though.  Some may see that as a form of censorship…it would be pretty hard to do a stigma-free notification.  Look at the current movie rating system as an example.

It’s not just specific words, it’s the way groups of people may be portrayed.  I have a harder time with sexist material in science fiction written in the 1950s, for example, than I do with ethnic material from the 1880s.  Why is that?  I think because the political struggle for women’s equality is more a part of my time.   I am better able to “suspend my disgust” over a stereotypical performance of an ethnicity in an 1880s book than I am over a “helpless female” in the 1950s.

Now, sci fi in the 1950s (and even earlier) did tend to portay women better (in some cases) than other literature.  That may be because they could set women’s political equailty (and in some cases, superiority) in a “fantasy” world.

However, I remember watching The Creature from the Black Lagoon with a young female relative.  I like that movie: I like most of the Universal horror movies (even though this isn’t part of the original group of those).    Kay (Julie Adams) is not particularly portrayed as helpless.  When the gill-man attacks in one scene, though, my young relative was confused: “Why doesn’t she hit him?”  Good point…the otherwise capable Kay basically stands there while the males try to fight off the creature.

Do I excuse that as being consistent with the times?

I’m leaving this one open…I’ll welcome your comments.  Should a book be condemned because it is racist, sexist, ageist, homophobic, if that was the cultural context in which the book was written?  What if the book has other positive elements?

What do you think?

This post by Bufo Calvin originally appeared in the I Love My Kindle blog.


23 Responses to “The Chronological Cultural Context Conundrum”

  1. tuxgirl Says:

    I believe it was the “N word” which caused Uncle Tom’s Cabin to be banned from many classrooms.

    I agree that often we are too quick to judge the people of the past based on our modern sensibilities, without ever thinking about how our time would be seen by people in those days. Can we really judge an abolitionist work as racist, due to it including a word which was common in the day it was written?

    I recall seeing some people on the internet disparaging a children’s book from a while back (50s, i believe), because it said stuff like “boys can be doctors, girls can be nurses”. Yes, it was stating things that are different from our current views of gender roles, but to call it sexist implies a lack of understanding about the time when it was written.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, tuxgirl!

      Yes, there’s often a lack of judging by context, but it’s still a tough call for me. There have been works that have been condemned for drug use references, for example…when the works are anti-drug use. However, on the other side, the casual use of a concept without awareness of the context could influence kids. The simple answer people have is that parents should discuss those issues with their children…but I can’t guarantee I read everything first that my offspring read at, let’s say, eleven.

      In case you cite, was that statement fundamentally untrue for the time (girls aren’t doctors)? I remember an old riddle, completely useless now.

      A doctor is called to the hospital in an emergency. A child has been in a car crash, and his father was killed. He needs immediate surgery. The doctor goes into the OR and says, “I can’t operate on this boy! He’s my son!” How is that possible?

      The oh-so-hard to figure out answer? The doctor is the boy’s mother, of course. If you ask that riddle now, kids have no trouble knowing the doctor is the mother.

      The way you quoted it says that boys “can” be doctors, not should be. That certainly might have been accurate for the vast majority…although of course, there have been men who were nurses for a long time.

      As I say, I find this one a tough call. I don’t think you can judge people from other times by today’s standards…but a lot of people reading the material won’t really have that awareness that the book is from a different time.

      • tuxgirl Says:

        Found a bit more about the book I referred to. Here’s a product-link:

        Looks like it was actually from the 70s, so it was a bit more sexist than some things in that day, but it was still about being happy with who you are.

        I agree that some care might need to be taken before making certain books “required reading” in schools, but I’m not sure that the level I would take would be to ban them. Growing up, I have always been rather conservative, and religious, but went to schools (private schools) starting around 5th grade which were exceptionally liberal, and in many ways, anti-religion. In kindergarten, I went to a school that was of a different religion from my own, and taught some things in the classroom that were distinctly different from my family’s beliefs. As a result, I learned pretty early that not everybody believed the way that I did, and my parents were pretty involved in having discussions about what I was learning. The discussions we had in kindergarten about things that were taught in my class formed the basis of discussions we had later when I was in high school and books like Catcher in the Rye were required reading.

        I know that parental involvement can’t solve everything. Many parents aren’t really involved in their children’s education, and won’t always be there to help their children, but I really don’t like the idea of censorship or banning of books. I guess my opinion is that it ‘s good to learn that people are different, and times are different, and to try to study books in the context in which they were written. In school classes, when material that could be construed as sexist or racist is taught, it seems like it would be useful to, prior to reading it, discuss the time period in which the book was written, what its goals were, etc. Then, as the class reaches the part that is controversial, it seems it would be good for the class to discuss *why* that was in there, and how it relates to the time period/story.

        I’m afraid I don’t really have too many suggestions for the people who are reading outside of school. The issues of books written in a different time period have never bothered me, personally, mostly because I do try to read things in context. I personally don’t think it would make sense to stick a warning on Uncle Tom’s Cabin or Huck Finn warning about the N word. In those cases, it is not used in a derogatory way — it’s simply used as the way that people spoke at the time the books were written.

  2. Sally Says:

    As always, I find your comments intriguing and thought provoking.

    I have watched some of the discussions where people are wanting to be “warned” that a book is of a certain genre or content. While I can understand wanting to read an overview of content, just to be sure if you are interested, the idea of being “warned” seems rather over the top to me in this day in age. Personally, I turn on the TV and see programming and commercials that do not reflect my views or sensibilities without warning or even a preliminary summary or preview. I change the channel or turn it off and go on. I think I learned in Kindergarten when people said things I didn’t like to “let it roll of your back.” Later in life, in classes I don’t think are taught anymore, I learned that’s called Free Speech. No warning or “Free Speech Zone” required.

    On the one hand our culture seems easily offended and sensitive, and on the other we seem exceptionally jaded and cynical. I’m not sure how we manage that. I also find the N word offensive, but some groups can use it all day long and I apparently have no right to express offense. Similarly, I want women to be portrayed in more than a one dimensional way, but good luck to any woman trying to get onto TV (including news shows) who doesn’t look like a model and show at least a little flesh.

    The latest round of “warnings” I find humorous is “Christian” publisher. A relevant topic summary including the fact that a character is a Christian, or gay, or a Vulcan, or that a book has graphic violence or sex makes sense to me. It’s part of the story the reader is trying to decide if they want to read. But a publisher warning? Especially since, having read a number of these books, I often found the spiritual theme to be well integrated into a very good book and no more offensive or threatening than a character who is Muslim or pro Second Amendment or from Nibiru. How far do we want to carry these warnings anyway? I’m envisioning book commercials that have a list of warnings on them like the drug commercials.

    Books have reviews, if something is over the top in some area, it will be apparent. And if something slips by, can we learn to not take everything so personally – as though, as you say, it were written just to us? The very fact that there is a warning, implies there is something potentially threatening you need to be cautious of. I find the premise of some “ruling body” – government or literary – deciding that troubling.

    On a lighter note, I live in Holland, by Macatawa, where Frank Baum vacationed. It’s a lovely area where supposedly he wrote as well as relaxed. If you have never visited the area I would invite you to come. Let us know and we would be happy to show you and your SO around. A little Dutch hospitality. Warning: I’m Dutch. 🙂

    • bufocalvin Says:

      What a well-written comment, Sally…thanks!

      Well, I’m “guilty” on the publisher warning…and I haven’t even read the books. I don’t know if I’d say it was a warning…more of an advisory, maybe? I don’t have too much problem with those advisories, as long as they don’t give anything away, and that can be hard. I’ve told people that Zondervan is a “faith-based” publisher. Hmmm…that’s an interesting question, as well. Why did I do that? Some people would assume that a publisher like that would have a “hidden agenda”…although they don’t really hide it o their website or anything. I wanted to let them know, since some would make a judgement based on that. I wouldn’t, personally…I’ve read books from all sort of viewpoints.

      Do I want to know ahead of time if a book has graphic violence? Yes, I think I would.

      The whole rating issue is fascinating. If you look at the current movie rating system, it came into existence (although it’s been considerably revamped) by the industry to avoid the threat of external regulation. Movies in the beginning were pretty unregulated…until the Hays Commission.

      The best movie “rating system” I ever saw came from a movie rental catalog. They had a scale. There was a language scale, a sexuality scale, a violence scale. For language, a movie might be something like a 1 (no swear words), a 2 (some h*lls and d*mns), and so on…without condemnation. There was an explanation of the scale, and it was fairly objective. I liked that method. It didn’t predetermine the audience (which is what you usually see…the raters tell you for what age group the work is suitable), but gave you reasonable information. We see ratings on movies, TV, videogames, music…but we see “reading levels” on books.

      I have been to Holland, actually! I’m half-Dutch myself. It’s a fascinating place. There were only two real problems we had there: one was making a wrong turn on to a dike (that’s quite a detour before you can get back to where you were!); and trying to get ketchup (instead of mayonnaise) for french fries. 😉

      • Sally Says:

        >I have been to Holland, actually! I’m half-Dutch myself. It’s a >fascinating place. There were only two real problems we had >there: one was making a wrong turn on to a dike (that’s quite a >detour before you can get back to where you were!); and trying >to get ketchup (instead of mayonnaise) for french fries.

        Oh sorry, guess I didn’t make that very clear. I’m from Holland Michigan – a Dutch settlement on the southwest shores of Lake Michigan. Macatawa is home to Castle Park, where the Baums had a summer place. According to Wikipedia’s Wizard of Oz entry, “Local legend has it that Oz, also known as The Emerald City, was inspired by a prominent castle-like building in the community of Castle Park near Holland, Michigan where Baum summered.”

        Rest assured, we have ketchup or my dear husband (who is not Dutch) would never have joined me here! 🙂

      • bufocalvin Says:

        Whoops! I should have realized that. I have relatives in Holland, Michigan…but I don’t know it very well. I’ve heard that it is considered one of the most complete transfers of culture in the world, what with the windmills, tulips, and wooden shoes and all. 🙂

  3. Al Says:

    I can still remember the shock of having “Little Black Sambo” banned from the library. I thought at the time that it was ridiculous, and I still do. I don’t want anybody telling me what I may or may not read. I also don’t want anybody telling my children what they may or may not read, including me.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Al, thanks for writing!

      I agree…I don’t want to see anything banned. I believe Tarzan has been pulled out of a lot of libraries, and there is certainly a stereotypical portrayal of Jane’s nurse. However, Tarzan does have friendships with local people, as I recall….I don’t think they are portrayed as inferior to Europeans (who aren’t seen as particularly good, either). Clearly, Tarzan thinks the Mangani (the beings who raised him…they aren’t any of the Great Apes we know, and they appear to be some sort of hominid) are more of the standard.

      Does the way Jane’s nurse is presented mean that Tarzan should be pulled from public libraries? School libraries? Should the book have some sort of warning? How about annotations? Who writes the annotations?

      As I say, it’s a tricky issue for me.

  4. Alan Says:

    Should Huckleberry Finn come with a warning because of the character N—-r Jim?
    There are plenty of books, good ones,literature, e.g., by the black writer, Ernest Gaines in which the word “n—-r” is used and is not offensive. Recently I audited a black studies graduate seminar in which we read books by Faulkner and others with the word in it. Faulkner of course used the word to show the racism of the characters. And we, the students and the professor, who was black, used the word. Yes, the word is offensive but so is murder, lynching, rape. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t read about them, and read the words that people say.

    [edited for language]

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing, Alan!

      You make an excellent point, and I would never suggest that those books should be either ignored or edited, and certainly not banned or removed from reading lists.

      For my readers, I changed the word that Alan used, the “n word”. This is a great example of where his use was completely appropriate, and not intended to be derogatory in any way. I checked with Alan before I edited the word, and he certainly may comment on this decision as well. My feeling is that the word is going to be offensive to some, and as some of you may have noticed, I don’t even write out some words that you can hear on broadcast TV. I’d say the roughest I’ve even gotten in these is saying, “Heck.” 😉 Feel free to comment, if you like.

      I do think Alan’s comment was well-written and important.

  5. Alan Says:

    Thanks for your comments. You say in The Chronological Cultural Context Conundrum “I tend to be an all or nothing person…if that word is wrong in some contexts, I’ll tend to think it is wrong in all contexts.” In view or my comments are you willing to revise that? So would it not be wrong to use the n word in Faulkner’s fiction to portray the evils of racism just as it would not be wrong to write about something else offensive, like slavery,lynching murder. The use of that word by Faulkner has been quite effective in changing my awareness of racism in the South. If reading a bio of a great man who swore a lot or used the n word wouldn’t you want to know what the man said, and while you might find his words offensive, might you not agree that those words in that context, a biography of say, Patton, who swore, are perfectly appropriate. Might the words seems less offensive than if they were the author’s words.

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Alan, thanks for continuing the conversation. 🙂

      For me, I’d rather read a version where they use placeholders, such as the one I put into your post. That’s what I’d prefer, just for me. However, I would absolutely want there to be versions without that, where you see the actual words, and I would not want substitutions done without some way to know that. I get the same impact from seeing, say, “f—ing” “jerks” as I would from seeing the word. But again, that’s me. Others would find that would change the emotional impact for them.

      Here’s an example. I’ve quoted Sturgeon’s Law before. The way I heard it was that famed science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon was responding to a comment that somebody made that, “90 percent of science fiction is trash.” The response, the way I heard it was, “90 percent of everything is trash.” Years later, I has someone tell me that the original word hadn’t been “trash”, but something harsher. I would love to have known that from the beginning, if it’s true, but I don’t need it to have been the other word for me to get the point.

      Again, and I really want to stress this, that’s just how I feel about it. I do not favor governmental involvement in any of this, and I want people to be free to express themselves the way they want. However, I also understand that some people don’t want to hear certain words in certain contexts because of the general societal associations with those words. I’m sure some people may be offended when I refer to myself as a geek, although I don’t find that an offensive word at all.

      Your points are well-expressed and seem well-reasoned to me, and I’m sure a lot of people agree with them. As I was saying initially, this one is an unsettled issue in my mind.

  6. Alan Says:

    what is the best way to recharge my k2? should I nearly drain the battery or is it ok to recharge it at any discharge level? amz gave me 2 answers in 2 emails. the first said nothing relevant and the 2nd said a lot of irrelevant stuff and then said to recharge wen 90% drained. I also spoke to 2 reps, 1 a k spec. and they told me it didn’t matter. I didn’t think they werevery sure of what they were saying. do yo have any definitive word on this. I didn’t trust

    • bufocalvin Says:

      Thanks for writing again, Alan!

      Well, the only definiive word is, I guess, from Amazon…although you seem to have gotten different words. 🙂

      Here is the way I understand it, from what I’ve seen from different sources.

      It is not necessary to drain the battery…that idea comes from an earlier form of battery technology that would develop a “memory” for a battery level. It’s also probably better not to drain it entirely…charging at anywhere between, say, 75% and 25% is probably best.

      With any Kindle except a K1, it will charge through your USB cable…that’s how I always charge mine, since I’m commonly putting personal documents on it for work.

      You can find information about this battery type (Lithium Ion) pretty easily on the web.

      I’d also generally let the Kindle go to sleep, rather than turn it off. I’ve seen that from Amazon a few times…obviously, there is some length of time of non-use when it is better to turn it off…but I think it may be days rather than hours.

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