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My Life With Maus

Sometimes life has a way of making you realize things about yourself. Recently, I discovered that an urge of mine, almost four decades old, had been the very opposite of that of a rural Tennessee school board this January. In another life, I played a role in what could be thought of as the unbanning of the graphic novel Maus.

For months, I’ve been reading about the growing Trumpist-Republican movement to ban whatever books its members consider politically unpalatable, lest the lives of America’s children be sullied by, say, a novel of Toni Morrison’s like The Bluest Eye or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or a history book like They Called Themselves the K.K.K. It’s an urge that just rubs me the wrong way. After all, as a boy growing up in New York City in the 1950s, when children’s post-school lives were much less organized than they are today, I would often wander into the local branch of the public library, hoping the librarian would allow me into the adult section. There — having little idea what I was doing — I would pull interesting-looking grown-up books off the shelves and head for home.

Years later, exchanging childhood memories with a friend and publishing colleague, Sara Bershtel, I discovered that, on arriving in this country, she, too, had found a sympathetic librarian and headed for those adult shelves. At perhaps 12 or 13, just about the age of those Tennessee schoolkids, we had both — miracle of miracles! — not faintly knowing what we were doing, pulled Annmarie Selinko’s bestselling novel Désirée off the shelves. It was about Napoleon Bonaparte and his youthful fiancé and we each remember being riveted by it. Maybe my own fascination with history, and hers with French literature, began there. Neither of us, I suspect, were harmed by reading the sort of racy bestseller that Republicans would today undoubtedly loathe.

Oh, and if you’ll excuse a little stream of consciousness here, my friend Sara was born in a German displaced-persons camp to Jewish parents who had, miraculously enough, survived the Nazi death camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald, which brings me back to the jumping-off spot for this piece. Unless you’ve been in Ukraine these last weeks, it’s something you undoubtedly already know about, given the attention it’s received: that, by a 10-0 vote, a school board in McMinn, Tennessee, banned from its eighth-grade classroom curriculum Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus, about his parents’ Holocaust years in Auschwitz and beyond (and his own experience growing up with them afterward). When I first heard about that act I felt, however briefly and indirectly, pulled off the shelves myself and banned. And damn! — yes, I want to make sure that this piece gets banned as well! — I felt proud of it!

Just to back up for a moment: that Tennessee school board banned Spiegelman’s book on the grounds, at least nominally, that it contained naked cartoon mice — Jewish victims in a concentration camp and Spiegelman’s mother, who committed suicide, in a bathtub — and profanity as well (like that word “damn!”). In a world where, given a chance, so many of us would head for the modern equivalent of those adult library shelves — these days, of course, any kid with an iPhone or a computer can get a dose of almost any strange thing on this planet — that school board might as well have been a marketing firm working for Maus. After all, more than three decades after it first hit the bestseller lists, their action sent it soaring to number one at Amazon, while donated copies began to pour into rural Tennessee.

As former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich recently pointed out, if you truly want a teenager to read any book with gusto, the first thing you need to do is, of course, ban it. So, I suppose that, in its own upside-down way, the McMinn board did our world a strange kind of favor. In the long run, however, the growing rage for banning books from schools and libraries (or even, in the case of the Harry Potter books, burning them, Nazi-style) doesn’t offer a particularly hopeful vision of where this country’s headed right now.

Read entire article at TomDispatch