Welcome to our first post from the Museum Studies class as they explore Banned Books Week and censorship. If you want to review their assignment or learn more about Banned Books week, please see Prof. Julie Holcomb’s recent post: Banned Books Week Introduction
by Ryan Roper
1984 by George Orwell
“What would Big Brother do?” If you’ve read 1984, you know that’s not the mindset you want in government. Ironically, however, Orwell’s book about governmental suppression has, itself, been the subject of it. In Big Brother-like style, two of the world’s largest authoritarian governments have banned or restricted access to 1984 in their countries.
1984 describes the life in Oceania, a dystopian society that is under constant surveillance by Big Brother, the Thought Police and the Ministry of Truth. One of the main means of control employed by Big Brother is censorship, which he uses to eliminate all independent thought and new ideas in Oceania. 1984 is a powerful reminder of the dangers of not standing up to governmental oppression.
Published in 1949, many viewed 1984 as a critique of Joseph Stalin and his totalitarian Soviet government. Like Big Brother, Stalin responded to the ideas expressed in the book by silencing them. He not only banned all publication of 1984, he prohibited the book from entering the country by imposing import restrictions and by ordering customs officials to confiscate it from travelers (Remnick). There were also criminal penalties for distribution of the book. At least one man in the Soviet Union was sentenced to 7 years in prison for anti-Soviet agitation, in part, because he translated and circulated copies of 1984 (Glenny). The Soviet ban continued for almost forty years, until 1988, when President Gorbachev introduced democratic reforms and authorized the publication of several previously banned books, including 1984 (Remnick).
In China, public access to 1984 has also been limited. The first Chinese translation of the book was not published until 1979, nearly thirty years after the book was written. Even then, copies of the translation were only available in special sections of bookstores and libraries not accessible to most Chinese people. The book was not widely available until 1985 (Hawkins and Wasserstrom). However, efforts to censor the book in China still exist today. Prior to schools reopening after the pandemic lockdown, the government began a nationwide push to remove unsuitable books from school libraries. The goal was to remove books “that damage the unity of the country, sovereignty or its territory; books that upset society’s order and damage societal stability; [and] books that violate the Party’s guidelines and policies, smear or defame the Party, the country’s leaders and heroes.” (Wu). One teacher acknowledged that copies of 1984 were removed from the library at her school during the purge (Wu). In addition, the Chinese government recently censored social-media references to 1984, fearing that activists use the book’s title, as code, to criticize the government (Hawkins and Wasserstrom).
In the United States, government censorship of books is prohibited by the First Amendment (“First Amendment”). There have, however, been a few isolated instances of parent led efforts to remove 1984 from local schools due to concerns over its political and sexual content (“Banned”). Those efforts are usually met with some resistance. In fact, a recent challenge to the book at an Idaho school district was rejected by the school board after opposition to the proposed ban. (Bodkin, “Jefferson County won’t ban”). As one senior put it, “if (school administrators) understood the novel, they would know why it is important” (Bodkin, “Jefferson County administrators”). It seems the message of 1984 is still important and relatable to students today.
“Banned & Challenged Classics.” American Library Association, www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/
Bodkin, David. “Jefferson County administrators consider banning classic novel.” IDEDNEWS, 22 Sept. 2017.
Bodkin, David. “Jefferson County won’t ban classic novel.” IDEDNEWS, 26 Sept. 2017. www.idahoednews.org/
“First Amendment and Censorship.” American Libraries Association. Oct. 2017. www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/censorship.
Glenny, Michael. “Orwell’s 1984 through Soviet eyes.” SAGE journals-Index on Censorship, doi: 10.1080/03064228408533747.
Hawkins, Amy and Jeffrey Wasserstrom. “Why 1984 Isn’t Banned in China.” The Atlantic, 13 Jan. 2019, www.theatlantic.com/
Remnick, David. “Soviets will Publish ‘1984.’” The Washington Post, 13 May 1988, www.washingtonpost.com/
Wu, Huizhong. “In echo of Mao era, China’s schools in book cleansing-drive.” Edited by Sara Ledwith, Reuters, 9 July 2020, www.reuters.com/article/us-china-books-insight/in-echo-of-mao-era-chinas-schools