You’d think that when you fork over your hard-earned money for a book you’d be getting the full monty, that is, all of the original book; but in too many instances you’d be wrong.

It has been standard practice for years now in book publishing to reprint older texts with certain passages and politically incorrect terms excised from the book.

For example, it might surprise you to learn that reissues of the books written by the most popular author of all time, Agatha Christie, have been given the blue pencil treatment for years, with potentially offensive words and even entire sections being removed.

The Hardy Boys and Tom Swift got the same treatment.

Now, if they’ve been doing this to works of fiction, you have to wonder what they’ve done to nonfiction books, such as history.

The latest example of this contempt for the integrity of the text is when Harlequin Publishers recently blithely admitted publicly that they’re reprinting some of their older books with changes being made in order to, as they put it in their blog:

“… offer a unique insight into the profound changes that have occurred in women’s lives over the past six decades — from shifts in private desires to shifts in the politics of gender.”

Fair enough, I suppose, but the blog also goes on to assert:

“… our intention was to publish the stories in their original form. But once we immersed ourselves in the text, our eyes grew wide. Our jaws dropped. Social behavior — such as hitting a woman — that would be considered totally unacceptable now was quite common sixty years ago. Scenes of near rape would not sit well with a contemporary audience, we were quite convinced. We therefore decided to make small adjustments to the text, only in cases where we felt scenes or phrases would be offensive to a 2009 readership. Also, grammar and spelling standards have changed quite a bit in sixty years.”

Never mind that “social behavior—such as hitting a woman” was not “quite common” or acceptable in America sixty years ago and never has been. That historical inaccuracy aside, the larger issue is in Harlequin’s collective assumptions that (1) political correctness demands that it is permissible to make arbitrary changes whenever someone might — with emphasis on might—be offended, (2) Harlequin has the unlimited duty—and not merely the legal right—to make such changes, and (3) there’s nothing wrong with rewriting not only the text but also the past itself.

There’s no telling where Harlequin acquired the notion that doing these things is beyond criticism. Perhaps they took their cue from Reader’s Digest, which has been mangling fine books for many decades without being called on it.

What we have here, then, is a classic case of political correctness (PC) run amuck. The editors at Harlequin seem to be so steeped in PC attitudes it simply never occurs to them that what they’re doing might be wrong.

Someone else who agrees with this assessment is fiction writer Walker Martin:

“This business of sheltering our eyes from things you think might offend us now is absolute nonsense. Who do you think we are, a bunch of weak-kneed sissies? Even if it makes us uneasy every once in a while to look at our past, history IS history, and it’s ridiculous to try to cover it up.”

You can read more of his reactions here. French crime fiction critic Xavier Lechard also has strong feelings on the subject.

The whole thing might seem like a tempest in a teacup, but it’s important to remember how crucial it was for the totalitarian government in Orwell’s 1984 to maintain control of the people by constantly destroying the past.

Mike Gray