Art Spiegelman’s ‘Maus’ is the latest One Book, One Chicago title. It feels like a provocation. – Chicago Tribune
The Chicago Public Library’s One Book, One Chicago program, now in its 21st year, has asked the city to read familiar favorites (“Pride and Prejudice”), harrowing memoirs (Elie Wiesel’s “Night”), environmental reporting (“The Sixth Extinction ”), fantasy adventures (Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere”), local history (“The Warmth of Other Suns”), local coming-of-age masterpieces (“The House on Mango Street”), heady sci-fi (“Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”). Yet as eclectic as those picks may seem, its new selection for the 2022-23 One Book, One Chicago offers something surprising:
Or perhaps, a provocation.
Either way, the choice of “Maus,” Art Spiegelman’s classic graphic novel about the Holocaust — which will get the typical One Book, One Chicago treatment, with the usual walking tours, workshops, screenings, lectures and eventual on-stage discussion with Spiegelman (this fall) — is no mere enthusiastic reading recommendation. Pointedly, it comes just nine months after a school board in Tennessee voted to remove “Maus” from schools, citing curse words and an image of nudity. “Maus” won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, and recalls the story of Spiegelman’s father, who survived imprisonment at Auschwitz; it was the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer, and long been a classroom tool for relating history, albeit a famously metaphorical one, portraying Nazis as cats and Jews as mice.
“Our pick is definitely a response to the way that people have questioned the role of libraries these days,” said Jennifer Lizak, CPL’s One Book, One Chicago coordinator. “It’s partly a way of reassuring patrons and Chicagoans they can read what they want to read here — this library is welcoming to everyone, no matter who you are. Though the irony, of course, is that nothing makes a book more popular than someone banning it.”
One Book, One Chicago, the library system’s largest annual adult program, costs roughly $100,000, primarily with funds raised by the Chicago Public Library Foundation.
The theme this year will be “Freedom to Read.” The library’s selection comes at a moment of renewed fervor to ban books, as school boards and politicians across the country have acted to remove titles from classrooms and libraries that discuss of race, gender, LGBTQ+ themes or American history in a less than flattering light. The One Book, One Chicago pick also arrives as fascist groups are marching regularly through major American cities and anti-Semitic incidents have surged nationally.
“Maus” — as startling as its comics-panel format and depiction of people as animals may still appear to some — is relatively fairly-straightforward testimony, a somber act of memory, centered around Spiegelman’s conversations with his father. Spiegelman’s mother also survived the Holocaust; decades later, in 1968, she killed herself. (Indeed, the image of nudity challenged in Tennessee showed her, post-suicide.) Spiegelman once told Hillary Chute, a former assistant professor of English at University of Chicago who collaborated with the artist on the 2011 history “MetaMaus,” that the “ legacy of great secular Jewish cartoonists” (Stan Lee, Al Capp) was an encouragement, but he spent decades with “an allergic reaction to my own Jewishness.” The final book, initially serialized in various comics and journals, and published in two volumes, took decades.
Along with 1980s milestones “Watchmen” and “The Dark Knight Returns,” the impact of “Maus” raised the comic book form — or at least, its earthier, weightier sibling the graphic novel — to a degree of new mainstream acceptance as literature, influencing generations of cartoonists such as Chris Ware and serving as precursor to classics like Alison Bechdel’s “Fun Home” and Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis” and Ware’s “Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth.”
It’s also, for decades, gathered its own share of accusations of hatefulness, often because of the striking depiction of people as animals, including the Polish as pigs. “Spiegelman’s justification, in part, is he is resignifying Nazi propaganda, which called Jews vermin and Poles swine,” said Chute, now a professor at Northeastern University in Boston. “Anyone reading it, and reacting to its substance, also sees Poles acting heroically — and selfishly.” Still, in one of several ironic challenges over the years, there were public bonfires of “Maus” in Poland in 2001; in 2015, “Maus” was removed from bookstores in Russia because of the use of a swastika on its cover. “But all of that read like pretext,” Chute said. “Nobody would confuse this with a book in favor of Nazism.”
The legacy of “Maus” has been so profound in an entire book of writings on “Maus” (edited by Chute) — culled from magazines, scholarly journals and newspaper pieces, going back 40 years — is due in November. The title, “Maus Now,” was taken from a series of talks Spiegelman gave after Donald Trump’s election in 2016, a 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the 2018 shooting massacre in a Pittsburgh synagogue.
On the phone from New York City, Spiegelman, now 74, said he felt for years as if he lived in the shadow of “Maus” — it had defined him so thoroughly he even drew himself in comics living beneath a large shadow cast by the book. Eventually he embraced it.
He had to accept it. As with contested books of Mark Twain, Toni Morrison and Maya Angelou, freshly opened eyes on old work has kept “Maus” a perpetual bestseller.
“Even now I hear ‘How could you do this in comics?'” Spiegelman said. “But that’s what made it surprising and gave it an impact even beyond the usual appetite for Holocaust literature.” He once expected pushback from the Jewish community. That never really happened, he said. Instead, it came from schools, parents. This recent Tennessee school board ban, Spiegelman said, “is just the high profile one.” Yet, earlier this year, at the invitation of Tennessee Jewish organizations, when he attended a talk about “Maus,” the event drew hundreds in person — and about 17,000 online. For that, Spiegelman offers winking thanks “to the shrewd marketers on the school board. I have become cannon fodder.”
Art Spiegelman participate in a keynote program Nov. 3 at the Harold Washington Library Center, 400 S. State St.; for this and other One Book, One Chicago events, go to www.chipublib.org/one-book-one-chicago