How to make a book a best seller: Ban it
By Tom Baxter
Last week, after the McMinn County school board in Tennessee voted unanimously to remove Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” a Knoxville comic-book store announced that it would give a copy of the book to every student who asked for one.
This is exactly what happens when you go banning books, which should be a cautionary note to Georgia lawmakers who are considering one of the cookie-cutter bills being considered in legislatures around the country this year aimed at giving parents more control over the books in school libraries.
“Maus,” a graphic novel in which Spiegelman portrays Jews as mice and Nazis as cats to tell the story of his family’s experiences during and after the Holocaust, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, but it had long since disappeared from any wide notice. Since the school board decision, “Maus” and its sequels have soared to the top of best-seller lists.
This is not a new phenomenon. Most well-read people know about James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” but not because they’ve read it. “Ulysses” may be a work of genius, but it became famous because it was deemed by officials to be obscene and banned in England and the United States.
When federal judge John Woolsey ordered the ban on “Ulysses” to be lifted in 1933, he wrote that while the book “undoubtedly is somewhat emetic, nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac.” The book might make some readers want to throw up, in other words, but it wouldn’t turn them on.
Exactly the same words could be used to respond to the McMinn school board’s explanation that it removed the book “because of its unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide.” The nudity in question is a drawing of the author’s mother, who committed suicide by slashing her wrists in a bathtub, and some anthropomorphized naked mice in concentration camps.
Senate Bill 226, the legislation being considered in Georgia, sets up a process for parents to challenge any material that is harmful to minors, which means the description or representation “in whatever form, of nudity, sexual conduct, sexual excitement, or sadomasochistic abuse,” provided that it “appeals to the prurient, shameful, or morbid interest of minors,” is offensive to accepted community standards, and is lacking in “serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value for minors.”
Would “Maus” fit that description? By the standard Judge Woolsey set in 1933, it wouldn’t. By the standard used in Tennessee this year, it might.
To say that’s a problem is not to say there aren’t books that shouldn’t be in school libraries. But the more the reasonable process of deciding what is appropriate is taken from the hands of school librarians and put in the hands of elected school boards and parents, the more politicized that process becomes. And the more politicized it becomes, the greater the chance that it will backfire, as it has, in spectacular fashion, in Tennessee.
Right now, the book-ban controversy involves conservative, white parents objecting to books like Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” or books with gay and lesbian characters. But this isn’t the only direction in which the process can be politicized. There have been several cases over the years in which African-American parents and educators have objected to Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” because of its depiction of black characters and in particular its use of the N-word, on the grounds that it is offensive and humiliating to African-American students. This has even led to the publication of a new edition of the book in which that word, as well as the word “injun,” have been removed.
Re-contextualized, the word which African-American parents objected to when the “Huckleberry Finn” controversy emerged in the 1980s and 1990s became a prominent part of the vocabulary of hip hop, as it had been in the language of the streets for some time.
Advocates of bills like S.B. 126 should take note of that. Taking books off school library shelves is going to have little or no effect on how much children are exposed to, when their phones, their laptops and televisions give them ready access to a culture awash in the controversial topics the bill is supposed to protect them from.
Nailed it, Mr. Baxter. I can’t say your column is an aphrodisiac, but it’s no emetic, either! Just good sense, well-stated.Report
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