January 19, 2011

A Gentle Bath of Disinfected Liquid Literature

The recent brouhaha about the bowdlerization of Huckleberry Finn knocked loose a strange phrase that had rested, unused but obviously still present, in my mind, and I didn't realize why till I thought about it long enough to reverse-engineer it.

It began with this post, where I noted that, this edition aside, that and other books have been silently bowdlerized for school use throughout the country for years, and that no one seems to know or care about that, even though, really, it's far worse when you do it and don't tell anyone. (See Jen's comment at that post for a truly egregious example.)

In the process of writing the post and the subsequent discussion of the matter on a couple of facebook threads, I became aware of an urge to use the verb "to wad down" as a less extreme equivalent for "to censor" or to "bowdlerize." Something like: "while I suppose I understand the desire to wad down the use of unpleasant words in a classroom setting…" But I knew that couldn't be right. The image I had was of someone taking a wadded up clutch of papers, such as, say, the pages of a book that had been ripped apart by schoolboard members or angry college professors, and smoothing them out over a table with a sort of kneading motion, massaging the unpleasantness away. In other words, wadding something down was the opposite of wadding something up. Sort of. The dictionary, of course, confirmed that this sense of the verb "to wad" didn't exist, except in my funky brain.

After wondering idly about it for a few days, a hitherto unnoticed memory dislodged itself and came to view.

It was in elementary school. The school librarian was giving a presentation to kids and parents, some sort of orientation or get-to-know-the-staff type event. There was a lot of talk about the Joy of Reading, and the importance of Getting Those Kids Reading and Why Johnny Can't Read (and the Bicentennial -- everyone was talking about that in schools in '75-'76.) She had a small stack of books that had been wadded down for children. I can hear and see her say it very clearly in my head, now that the memory has begun playing: "they're the same books, it's just that they've been wadded down." And when she said "wadded down" she made a smoothing out motion with her hands. So that's where it came from. I also remember getting a clear sense of disapproval of this wadding down from my parents. (I mean, it was probably the wadding down, because I can't imagine any way in which they could possibly have disapproved of the Bicentennial.)

As you have no doubt surmised, and as I realized as soon as I recalled the context, what she had really said was "watered down." The books are the same books, but they had been watered down for kids. The librarian's hand motion was probably meant to evoke water in some way, swimming, or running one's hands through a gentle bath of disinfected liquid literature.

I dearly wish I could remember the titles of the wadded down books on the table. I think one of them might have been The Once and Future King. And whoa: I just realized, I first read the Lord of the Rings from that library. I wonder if that was wadded down? I don't think it was. (See how awful it is not to know whether or not you've read the real book? I mean, I think it's awful. Who could think it would be a good idea to wad down books all over the place like that?)

Anyway, even now that I've got it right, the verb "to wad down," in the sense of "to create a fake, starter book for kids by smoothing out a real one with your weird, freckly old-people hands" is still there in my head, undislodge-able. If you get me drunk enough, or mad enough, I might well even wind up saying it out loud sometime. But at least we'll know what I'm doing now.

Posted by Dr. Frank at January 19, 2011 04:21 AM | TrackBack