Norman Knight: Banning books seems counter-intuitive

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“You don’t have the Maus book, do you?”

“Yes, I have a copy. I was just talking about it in church this morning.

“Do you mind if I borrow it the next time we see each other?”

“No problem.”

I assumed my friend texted me about Maus: A Survivor’s Tale that Sunday for at least two reasons. First of all, he knows about my passion for books as well as my interest in a narrow type of graphic novel, so there was a good chance I owned a copy of Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book. The second reason is said to be a news article that has been doing the rounds of the country regarding a Tennessee school board’s decision to ban Maus from its eighth-grade curriculum. He would like to see for himself what it was all about.

I had a long relationship with Maus. I first encountered a few plates of it in an underground comic book collection, Raw, published by Spiegelman. I had been fascinated by “Underground” comics ever since friends introduced me. These magazines were like disruptive cousins ​​to the “Approved by Comics Code Authority” comic books I had read growing up. These comics were rebellious, risque, and politically radical—a perfect choice for this long-haired student, occasional scholar, and occasional musician.

The novel became a book in 1986 and although at that time I was a middle school English teacher and supposedly cardholder of the institution, I bought a copy. It quickly claimed a place on my list of favorite books. I told everyone I thought might be interested. I didn’t teach it in my class, but I had it on a shelf in the classroom. As far as I know, only a handful of students have ever picked it up. Still, if anyone asked about it, I would warn them that even though Jews are portrayed as mice and Nazis as cats, this was pretty serious and intense reading. This is the Holocaust, after all. How can you make this piece of history anything but dark? I hope you get something out of it, I would say.

In the summer of 1996, while vacationing in Philadelphia, I saw a flyer advertising “Art Spiegelman: The Road to Maus,” an exhibit at the National Museum of American Jewish History. We decided to go there. I was captured by the book, once again. Room after room, the walls and display cases were filled with doodles, preliminary sketches, full drawings, hand-written panels and explanatory information telling the story of Maus’ creation. Once again I returned for another read.

The book—books, in fact; Maus is in two volumes – follows Spiegelman as he interviews his father, Vladik, an Auschwitz survivor. The story goes back and forth between present-day interviews in Poland in the 1930s and 1940s. One thing the story shows are the gradual changes in laws, society and attitudes, and how these led to the Jewish people being treated as less than human. These all-too-human attitudes towards the Other, the Different, ultimately led to the Final Solution.

Now, once again, I am forced to search for my copy of Maus. This time it’s because of the McMinn County School Board’s decision to ban the book. Their arguments – a language and a panel of a naked woman – seem a bit weak to me. The ideas and historical perspectives to be drawn from this book seem to be stronger arguments for keeping it.

On the censorship/anti-censorship continuum, I’m at the extreme end of free reading. That said, shouldn’t local communities have a say in what is taught in their schools? In 2021, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was banned in Burbank, California for offensive language. Was it the best educational initiative? A downside of censoring books is that they often become forbidden fruit. Banning books seems counter-intuitive.

The next time my friend and I meet, it will probably be over coffee. Being somewhat opinionated, I’m sure he’ll have a lot to say about the book, even before he reads it. I also have a few thoughts to share.

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