Posts Tagged ‘Maus’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

The other night, my wife and many of her Facebook ‘friends’ had a back and forth about a link she shared.  The bone of contention was one of those ubiquitous internet ‘lists’. You know the kind.  ‘The 50 best cat memes’, or the ’36 best Presidents’, or, in this case, the ’32 Books that will change your life’.

What is it about the internet’s insatiable love of lists?  In the realm of book lists alone, anonymous internet patrons proclaim what ‘books to read before you die’; or which ‘books you need to read before 30’; or simply, ‘The Greatest Books of All Time”.  At the very least, these lists spark discussion, as proven by the good-natured argument had by my wife and her social media buds about this particular ‘Buzzfeed’ biblio-litany.  Most of their discussion centered upon what books should be on the list, and what books didn’t deserve such praiseworthy recognition.  Each participant added his or her own ‘how could this book be missing from such a list’ selection.

I, myself, had another query after glancing at the list in question.  Why, oh why, do such lists focus so exclusively upon that most recent literary invention, appropriately termed the novel?  Where are the books that will change your life not in the novelistic form?  Don’t get me wrong, I love a good novel as much as the next bibliophile, but why do these lists ignore any mention of other types of books? If we are talking about books that ‘change your life’, or you ‘should read before you die’, shouldn’t there be at least the hint of philosophy?  Of Religion?  Perhaps, even the-republichistory?

Well, have no fear.  I will solve this list shortage with yet another list.   Here is just a sampling of works,  none novels, that should be read before you die; or that should be read before you 61Kvp0zgD6Lare 40; or that can change your life. Feel free to ignore my suggestions, and/or tell me what I missed.

  • The Republic by Plato – This may seem daunting, but most every argument crucial to Western philosophy gets it start right here.  Politics, morality, religion, social structure?  It’s all in there.
  • The Bible –  To understand our world, and the viewpoints of so many, read it from cover to cover.  Sure, there are moments in Deuteronomy and Leviticus that can get a bit long, but you can make it.federalist
  • The Works of Mencius – You may be saying to yourself ‘who’, not recognizing the name of one of the great Ancient Chinese philosophers. But, if you pick up his works, you will find an incredibly warm, and positive investigation of human nature.
  • 9781844678761_Communist-manifesto (1)Japanese Love Poems of the 10th Century – Again, this sounds arcane, but the poetry written during Japan’s Heien era is some of the most straightforwardly beautiful poetry around.  It is easy to fall in love with, pun notwithstanding.
  • The Federalist by Madison, Hamilton and Jay – Want to understand American politics? Here is where you need to start.
  • The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels – See what all the fuss is about.
  • download (2)Illuminations: Essays and Reflections by Walter Benjamin – Specifically, book lovers should check out his “Unpacking My Library”. With_the_Old_Breed_(Eugene_B._Sledge_book_-_cover_art)Cultural critics should delve into his “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” for something a little less light.
  • With the Old Breed by E.B. Sledge –   Sledge’s classic understated chronicle of his experiences during the World War 2 in the Pacific will make you question if there can be such a thing as a “Good War”.
  • foot2The Story of Art by Ernst Gombrich – Still the standard introduction to art history.  Perfect for a college classroom, or for a relaxing read.
  • Maus by Art Spiegelman – A groundbreaking work that combines the art of graphic novels with an Mausautobiographical memoir of the Holocaust.
  • 2943781Descartes’ Baby by Paul Bloom – Bloom is a Yale psychologist who studies infant behavior and development.  I think every page of this book had me shaking my head in amazement.  It opened my eyes to the incredible world of children’s minds.

So, there you have it.  A quickly constructed list of highly recommended non-novels.

Now, go argue about it on Facebook.  Or, Tumblr.  Or, wherever.

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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty. 

No matter what we would like to believe, we are all prejudiced.  That term has an ugly connotation in the twenty-first century.  Prejudice automatically gets associated with the prejudgment of a set of people based upon such social constructs as race, gender, or sexual orientation.  In reality, this is just one kind of prejudice, though admittedly the most infamous. Humans prejudge things all the time, and I am a human.  I have never tasted insects, and there are many people living in the world who love to eat them, but I have made an uninformed prejudgment that I would not like them. This is prejudice.

Though I try not to prejudge people, I have no problem prejudging cultural matters. I will avoid television’s latest extreme reality talent show extravaganza like the plague; instead I will watch some PBS programming. Superhero movies?  No thanks.  I will spend my two hours enjoying a nice documentary.  And, if I won’t waste two hours on a movie that doesn’t live up to my snobby standards, I most definitely will not be spending a day reading a book that I believe will not expand my intellectual horizons. Here is where my cultural prejudices reach a climax. I prejudge romance novels, crime stories, adolescent literature, and many other forms of writing that I believe would not be worth my while. Not surprisingly, this feeling of inexperienced distaste colored my opinion of that seemingly most pop culture of genres; ‘graphic novels’. I will admit it; when I thought of graphic novels, I thought of comic book conventions. I thought of super-hero fans meeting at the local Radisson.  I thought of teenagers who are obsessed with Japanese style anime or manga due to the works’ infamous graphic violence and sexuality.

I can now admit that I was wrong. My prejudice was ignorance. It was misplaced. What disabused me of my prejudice was reading a book of amazing historical significance: Art Spiegelman’s groundbreaking work, Maus. Maus is a bit difficult to describe.  In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Spiegelman began to record conversations he had with his father about the latter’s days in 1930’s Poland, and his experiences during the Holocaust as a Polish Jew.  From these interactions, Spiegelman produced a unique memoir. He wrote the chronicle as a ‘comic book’/graphic novel.  The book revolves around the elder Spiegelman’s memories, but also the difficult relationship between a father that survived Auschwitz, and a son who grew up in 1950’s and 60’s America.  To make things even more revolutionary, in true comic fashion, Spiegelman depicted the Jewish victims of the story as humanized mice and the Nazis as humanized cats.

If you have never heard of Maus, your reaction to my description may be a bit dubious.  This is how I felt before I read the work. At best, I believed that this ‘comic’ strip adaptation of the Holocaust would be ineffective.  At worst, I was worried that the aesthetics of the work would simplify and trivialize the central event of the twentieth century. What concerned me about a comic book adaptation of history is what concerns me about Hollywood depictions of history.  A ‘bad’ movie that covers a historical theme does more harm than good. Hollywood creates a dualistic history of good vs. evil in order to speak to an audience’s perceived desire for massive problems easily solved. This is how I prejudged Maus, but I was looking only at the negative. If a poorly made film can trivialize history, a powerful movie can make history come to life much more effectively than written accounts.  Maus has the same capability.  It has the visual power of an incredibly well done film, but the depth of a 300 page written work.  Reading this book makes the reader FEEL history; the pain of humanity. Humans are incredibly empathic, and a visual work such as Maus grabs our emotions.  It plays with them and destroys them. It does this even though it depicts the Holocaust using animal characters to relay human history. Representing people as mice and cats is actually incredibly effective. When Spiegelman portrays dead mice in the crematoria, you feel physically sickened.  The artwork oozes sadness, despair, pity, anger, hatred.  This is possible because humans have an incredible ability to see humanity everywhere.  We see faces in the most mundane, least human artifacts. If you doubt this, Google ‘celebrity faces in food.”  The ability to see human faces in non-living objects or non-human life forms is known as pareidolia, and we all do it. Because of this, Spiegelman’s mice quickly transform to humans; his mouse tale becomes a tale of humanity.

A work like Maus shatters genre as it shatters your understanding of an event.  Reading it changed the way that I view ‘comics’ and the possibilities that exist therein.  As soon as I finished Spiegelman’s work, I began the lookout for other well-made graphic novels dealing with historical events.  My prejudice has been destroyed, and I am better off for it.

I do still hate American Idol though; with extreme prejudice.