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Why is it that, when a culture is faced with challenging times, the practice of book-banning (or its more extreme cousin, book-burning) always seems to emerge as a solution?
Suddenly, people who should have far greater concerns are so outraged by particular books that they not only want to keep their own children from reading them, they want to keep yours from reading them, too. Why are they so afraid of these books?
Spoiler alert: It’s likely not for the reasons they’re giving you.
Many of you have heard that a Tennessee school board recently banned Maus, by Art Spiegelman, from its curriculum. Maus is an allegorical graphic novel about the Holocaust, told via the device of cats and mice. It reinvents a horror that has become both distant and overly familiar and makes it into something fresh and painful and relevant.
The board claims they object to this book on the basis of ‘nudity’ and ‘profanity.’ Yes: nudity. Let’s set aside the fact that the characters are mice. Have you seen those videos of the concentration camps being liberated? Nudity is the least upsetting thing about them. Besides, omitting the nudity from such a story would be to tell a lie about the extreme dehumanization that took place. Monstrosities like the Holocaust cannot and should not be sanitized.
Predictably, other schools nationwide are getting in on the trend as well, banning not just Maus, but books that are LGBTQ+-themed or that present the experiences of People of Color. Any book is fair game, really, if it questions the traditional power structures on which so many have come to rely. A few days ago, also in Tennessee, a conservative pastor even held a book-burning that included Harry Potter books (which he deemed demonic).
As a writer, it’s my job to inhabit other people’s perspectives. But I do struggle trying to fathom the mindset of someone whose response to a challenging book is to ban it.
For one thing, it’s ineffective. Have you ever told a child they couldn’t have something? Are you familiar with that whole Adam-and-Eve business? There is no better way to popularize something than to grant it the status of forbidden fruit. Since news of the ban emerged, sales of Maus have soared (I’ve already ordered my copy). It has created more interest than would have ever existed if they’d just let the thing remain on the shelves in the first place.
But while it’s tempting to laugh at this kind of overreach (because who really thinks Harry Potter is demonic?), or to say, “well, it’s not happening here,” those of us who value a free and diverse society need to be paying attention to what all of this portends. Because it’s not really about the profanity or the sexual references. It’s about the ideas. It’s about control and creeping authoritarianism. It’s about insisting that everyone live according to a particular group’s particular values. I think about The Handmaid’s Tale, and the thing that is most frightening about that story is how quickly the takeover happened. It happened because people didn’t pay enough attention, didn’t take it seriously, didn’t think it could happen there.
A favorite book-banning argument is that “these books are fine, just not for children. They might corrupt the young.” And it’s true that not every book is appropriate for a school curriculum. But the challenged books are not pornography or treatises on bomb-making. These books have been chosen (by teaching professionals) for their artistic and educational value.
They’re right about one thing, though. Books do have power. Books can reshape ideas and open minds. They can conjure up worlds and possibilities far beyond the ordinary person’s experience. They can entertain and educate and enthrall. This is why book-banning is one of the first actions of any authoritarian regime. Books like Maus have more power than most, and that’s why they are the most critical. Don’t we want our kids to be creatures of empathy, as well as responsible citizens of the world? Books like these are how we get there.
I do get it: some of these books are disturbing. But the answer to disturbing ideas is not to pretend they don’t exist. It’s to keep reading, to find a counterpoint of feeling, to plumb the width and breadth of human experience until the idea in question is just one small part of a contextualized whole.
In the words of the Roman playwright Terence, “I am human, and nothing human is alien to me.” Rather than closing inwards, we should be reaching outwards, toward compassion and understanding.
My ask today is a simple one: look for the books that are banned. Read them and share them and talk about them with your kids. Every idea matters if we want this great project of democracy to continue. Let’s keep paying attention.
— Karen M. Vaughn (she/her) has lived in Lawrence so long she still remembers Paradise Cafe. She is the author of two books of magic realism short stories: Death Comes for the Trophy Wife (Brain Mill Press, 2021) and A Kiss for a Dead Film Star (Brain Mill Press, 2016). She adores books and her family, and can often be seen scanning the horizon for approaching zombie hordes. Find her on karenvaughn.info or Instagram: @attackofthekaren.