The Book Nook: Maus by Art Spiegelman

by Lori Walker
published in Reading

If you read my last post, you’re probably wondering why I’m talking about Maus today. The answer is simple. Shortly after I shared my last post, in which I listed twelve books that I’ve owned for a long time and vowed to read in 2022, a school board in Tennessee banned Maus, the graphic novel about the Holocaust. And that really broke open something inside of me.

I have long been interested in banned books and have found the banning of books to be problematic. Any time “they” started telling “us” to not read a particular book, I just had to read it. This rebelliousness felt subversive when I was a teenager buying The Golden Compass series because my parents’ church came out against it. But it has grown into a desire to dig deeper, to read these books to figure out why they’re inventing excuses to have them banned.

This changed my thinking about this column. I don’t need to spend my time writing posts that promote the work of current and recent bestselling authors who really don’t need further promotion from me. Their books are good. Their books are available. Read them if you are interested, or don’t.

Instead, I am going to use this column to focus on commonly banned books and discuss why that banning is problematic. I’ll go into some of the commonly invented reasons for the book being banned, then I’ll discuss the larger implications. Some of these books will be re-reads, like the one I have planned for next month, and some will be new to me, like Maus today.

About Maus

Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel recounts his father’s survival of the Holocaust and has a frame depicting his relationship with his father as an adult. Both tales are gut-wrenching and heartbreaking. The tale of surviving the Holocaust is full of hiding and narrow escapes, close calls with death, not being sure whom to trust and for how long. The tale of the aging father speaks to anybody who has dealt with an aging parent or grandparent—the arguments, the confusion, the belligerent behavior—but it’s told against the backdrop of this unspeakable history that creates so many additional layers of nuance.

The genius of the tale is depicting the Jews as mice and the Nazis as cats. There are also dogs and frogs. This choice plays on common depictions of different groups as different animals. But it also takes the reader out of the factual history enough to grasp the story better by seeing the events unfold with animals instead of humans. 

Banning Maus

Maus was ostensibly banned because of profanity and nudity. After reading both volumes in a day, the profanity can readily be heard on primetime network TV. The one time the author meant a word stronger than that, he used symbols (ie $^&*@!) in lieu of letters. 

As for the nudity, in the first place, mice are already nude. They typically don’t wear pants or any clothes at all when you see them out in the wild. But also, it wasn’t sexual nudity. Rather, the nudity depicted the moment the Nazis took the clothes from the Jewish people in order to sanitize them, but also to dehumanize them. Nor was the nudity gratuitous. There were just a handful of panels with black and white line drawings of male mice with genitalia.

Why We Need to Read Maus

It is no secret that antisemitic acts of violence and destruction are on the rise in the United States and throughout the world. Survivors of the Holocaust are not going to be around much longer to tell their stories. These firsthand accounts are invaluable for understanding history and hopefully keeping it from happening again, for proving the strength of the human spirit in the face of unimaginable conditions and unspeakable acts.

General Eisenhower ensured the liberating armies took photographs of the horrors of the concentration camps as evidence that they actually happened. This was partly to collect evidence for what eventually became the Nuremberg Trials. But also, he had the foresight to see a time when people would deny this even happened. So too, with these firsthand accounts of the Holocaust—they keep history from being wiped away.

The outcry against the banning of Maus has been enormous. I was fortunate enough to procure a copy so that I could read it before they flew from the shelves. A local bookstore partnered with a local synagogue to give people in Tulsa free copies of the books to ensure people have the opportunity to read this important work. Hopefully, there are other such local efforts.

Tell us in the comments: Have you read Maus? What did you learn from it?

Lori Walker is the Operations Maven at DIY MFA. Though she’s fallen off the wagon as a writer, she’s hoping to return to writing essays (perhaps even a novel!) through her involvement with DIY MFA. She is also Launch Manager, Web Editor, and Podcast Producer for DIY MFA and a Book Coach. She resides in Smalltown, Oklahoma, with her husband and their cat, Joan Didion. You can follow her on Instagram at @LoriTheWriter.

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