The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This freaking app can sanitize the [heck] out of any book

In 2011, an English professor in Alabama published an N-word free version of “Huckleberry Finn” to make Mark Twain’s classic more palatable to public schools.

Now, naturally, there’s an app for that.

In fact, Clean Reader can instantly sanitize any e-book purchased through its store of more than 1 million titles.

For readers who think our culture is going to H-E-double-hockey-sticks in a hand basket, this is a frakkin’ miracle.

“Enjoy great books,” the app announces, “without the profanity!”

The interface is easy to use and much quicker than wielding your own black Sharpie. Once you download an e-book, the app asks, “How clean do you want this book to appear?” (It sounds more exciting if you imagine that question in Kate Upton’s voice.) East Coast liberals in cahoots with Satan can choose “Off,” in which case the book will appear in all its original explicitness. But readers with more delicate sensibilities can pick “Clean,” “Cleaner” or the blindingly pure  “Squeaky Clean.” (At that extreme setting, “Fifty Shades of Grey” is bleached to “One Shade of Ecru.”)

Clean Reader — available for free from the Apple store or Google Play — is the brainchild of Jared and Kirsten Maughan in Twin Falls, Idaho. He works in R&D at a dairy processor; she’s a dietitian who’s currently staying home to take care of their four children. The idea came to them when they were trying to find books for their precocious fourth grade daughter. “In order to challenge her as a reader,” Jared says, “we had to present her with books that were a little bit older.” But after starting a book she had checked out of the library, she told her parents, “It had some pretty significant swear words in it.”

They searched for an app to automatically remove profanity from e-books, but they couldn’t find one. “Well, shoot,” Jared thought, “maybe we could do something like this.”

But the Maughans quickly learned from a lawyer that republishing books with the offensive words changed or removed would violate authors’ copyrights. So they partnered with a Chicago firm called Page Foundry, which altered its general book-reading app to create Clean Reader — a profanity-filtering program. The Maughans earn a small commission from books purchased through the app.

The app automatically obscures the F-word and all its remarkable permutations, along with the S-word, different names for deity, racial slurs and, Jared says, “anatomical terms that can be a little racy.” All told, more than 100 different words and phrases — enough for at least 14 more George Carlin monologues. And the fight is never over. “We keep finding new spellings,” Jared says, “and authors using different spaces, so we have to keep putting in different words and arrangements of words, different endings, slang terms and slang ways of using them. So it’s an ever-growing list.”

As that old Concord prude Henry David Thoreau once observed, “There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”

A quick look at Colson Whitehead’s “Sag Harbor” illustrates the challenge a computer-controlled profanity scrubber faces. Early in this autobiographical novel about a black boy on vacation on Long Island, Colson explains the arcane “grammatical acrobatics” of insults: “One smashed a colorful and evocative noun or proper noun into a pejorative, gluing them together with an -in’ verb.” Unfortunately — or fortunately, depending on your depravity — Whitehead’s hilarious hand-written chart appears unfiltered in the Clean Reader app. But the naughty words in the text itself are effectively replaced with little blue dots:

“True masters of the style sometimes attached the nonsensical ‘with your monkey •’ as a kicker to convey sincerity and depth of feeling. Hence, ‘You • Kunta Kinte-lookin’ • . . . with your monkey •.'”

At times, those elisions render passages downright mystical. The narrator’s friend NP — a nickname Clean Reader would instantly obscure if it were written out — “had put-downs to spare.” In one particularly fine moment, he says, “I could hit your fat • • fine, you • Rerun from What’s Happening-looking •.”

“What the • did you say?” his friend asks.

“You • biscuit-eatin’ •!”

Tap on those blue dots, and the app reveals close if bland approximations: “butt,” “freaking,” “jerk” and “witch.” (“Witch” rhymes, but it adds an occult flavor to the original.)

Jared knows this service isn’t for everybody, but he also knows there’s an audience out there. “We’re got friends who tell us, ‘We’ve always wanted to read this book, but we didn’t want to read all those swear words.’ We’re hoping this is a win-win: Authors can sell more books.”

•, right.