Challenged Book: 1984

George Orwell’s 1984 is a heavily challenged book. The American Library Association, which compiles material on challenges and bans, routinely lists it as one of the most challenged books; it’s the top 10 list of challenged ‘classics,’ for example. People really have a problem with 1984.

I didn’t read this book until I went to college, which may surprise some people. I was very well read before college, but not really in the areas people might expect; I had missed a lot of books considered classics. Naturally, when I did read 1984, I fell in love with it. It has pretty much all of the elements I love in a book. Dystopian themes and a stark vision of the future. Alternate history. The rise of totalitarianism, paired with vague memories as to how it happened. A hero who isn’t particularly likable. A world where up becomes down and down becomes up on order.

I suspect that most of you have read this book and whether you hate it or love it, you probably don’t need me to wax on about it. I will say that I really like the visual imagery in 1984, and Orwell’s use of language. One of the overriding themes of the book is the development of Newspeak, and the book really eloquently speaks to the tremendous loss that would happen if something like that really was adopted.

How would you render that famous quote, ‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face—forever’ in Newspeak? The book raises a vision of a time when only certain people, primarily trusted scholars and censors, would have access to the full flower of the English language, at the same time that it shows us, vividly, how powerful and beautiful language is. Whether we’re in a forest glen with Winston Smith or cowering with fear in a prison, it’s Orwell’s skill with language that brings the scenes and characters to life. The vision in 1984 isn’t just about a loss of society, but also about a loss of creativity and communicative ability, and the use of language as a tool for social control, and that frightens me, deeply.

What’s the problem with 1984? Challenges centre on the hints of sexual content and violence, because those are easy to attack when you’re using ‘the children’ to justify attempts to remove literature from the shelves of libraries. But clearly it’s about more than that. The book is a cautionary tale for society. It reminds readers to question authority, to challenge the narratives they encounter, and to watch the government. It highlights the tremendous cost of resistance to totalitarianism at the same time that it shows people that resistance is critical, perhaps even required, for people who recognise what is happening around them.

Winston Smith becomes a hero because he doesn’t take things at face value. That’s a dangerous lesson to teach people. His very job is embedded in layers of danger, in terms of lessons for readers; while the real-world media hasn’t quite reached the level it does in 1984, the book has shades of prescience. Who controls the stories? Who writes them? Who decides what information should be disseminated, and what information should be suppressed? Who, ultimately, decides what members of the public can access? And how are stories manipulated to convey the desired ideas?

The three most frequent locations for challenges are schools, school libraries, and public libraries. 1984 is considered a political book, which is interesting, because a lot of science fiction is political, but isn’t challenged as such. People rarely identify this book as science fiction, focusing on the political message. And a lot of people don’t seem to like that message.

It’s notable that parents tend to be the most frequent challengers, and that many parents have a vested interest in controlling their children. A book asking readers to challenge the source and origins of authority, asking readers to think about the narratives presented to them, is pretty dangerous for parents who think of their children as people who need ‘control,’ as well as to people who think that kids should be quiet and unassuming. Having middle school students or teens read 1984 might spark a revolt! Students might start asking about the source of information in their textbooks! They might start drawing parallels between the events of the book and the real world! How long have we been at war with Eastasia?

What dismays me about the frequency of challenges in locations like schools and libraries is that these places serve as the introduction to literature for a lot of people. Librarians put patrons in touch with the books they need to be reading, teachers open up whole new worlds in class, and people who might have their worldview fundamentally shifted will miss out if they aren’t allowed access in these places. Not everyone grows up in a house with lots of books, not everyone grows up in an environment where people give and share books. For these people, public resources are the only way to read books like 1984.

If that book is taken off the syllabus and forced off the library shelves, people might never get a chance to read it. At the heart of many rebels, many people who have challenged social order, many activists, many authors, lies a turning point, a key, critical book that made a huge difference in that person’s life. Challenging books has a profound impact on the growing generation of people, which is why I applaud people like the high school student who made headlines a few years ago by running a banned books library out of her locker.

Restricting access to information doesn’t prevent that information from existing. It just means that people who need it can’t get it.