A number of beloved novels, for both children and adults, are being “retouched” — updated to remove overtly racist, sexist or otherwise offensive language. Publishers and literary estates — including those of best-selling mystery writer Agatha Christie, children’s author Roald Dahl and James Bond creator Ian Fleming — argue these changes will ensure, in the words of the Dahl estate, that “wonderful stories and characters continue to be enjoyed by all children today.”

But it’s a threat to free expression, to historical honesty and, indeed, to readers themselves for contemporary editors to comb through works of fiction written at different moments and rewrite them for today’s mind-set, particularly with little explanation of process or limiting principles. The trend raises uncomfortable questions about authorship and authenticity, and it ignores the reality that texts are more than consumer goods or sources of entertainment in the present. They are also cultural artifacts that attest to the moment in which they were written — the good and the bad.