There were three of you who knew which book a Textbook Committee in Alabama once wanted to remove from the schools for being (wait for it) a ‘real downer.’
Yup, Anne Frank’s Diary. Which has also been challenged by reason of its teenage author’s clear and candid (and wonderfully written) observations of her changing body and sexuality, for her supposed disrespect for “authority,” and as a “hoax” by Holocaust deniers.
All infuriating, but it’s the word “downer” that gets me every time. Something about its lazy banality makes me want to celebrate the book and its author — angrily, out loud and passionately.
But what passage to read at the El Cerrito Library Banned-Book-a-Thon? Because although I could remember every character, and in some detail, the fact is that I hadn’t actually read the book since I was about Anne’s age. Which was okay. I’ve been wanting to check it out again since I read what Philip Roth’s literary alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman, says about the young author (in The Ghost Writer):
She was something for thirteen. It’s like watching an accelerated film of a fetus sprouting a face, watching her mastering things…. Suddenly she’s discovering reflection, suddenly there’s portraiture, character sketches, suddenly there’s a long intricate eventful happening so beautifully recounted it seems to have gone through a dozen drafts.
Actually, Anne Frank did put her diary through at least two drafts. As more of her papers are published, we see the evidence of hard, focused working and reworking, over time, as the author’s powers of observation and understanding mature.
Which is why the material I chose included a passage Anne wanted to develop into a short story, which brilliantly shows (and never tells!) how different residents of the “Secret Annex” express and don’t express their fears and emotions, while employing their own personal potato peeling techniques. And how I discovered why, more than half a century after my first reading, I could still name everyone in the Diary.
And although, last Tuesday night at the El Cerrito Library, it might have seemed odd for a writer of feelthy books to choose to read what’s come to seem like a middle school standby, I hope I gave the lie to that.
A “downer” that such a richness of writerly talent existed and even flourished in such hateful circumstances? Hey, I wouldn’t even use the word in reference to the author’s horrible, lonely death at Bergen-Belson. This is why we have language — to try (and never quite manage) to understand and account for the wonderful and the awful and the everyday — not to dismiss them with a shrug and an sneer.
And why you have to read the Diary if you haven’t (hopefully in one of the later editions that include the additional passes), and even to check it out again if it’s been a while. And also to read Francine Prose’s excellent summary of the book and its fortunes, Anne Frank: The Book, the Life, the Afterlife.
Anyway, thanks for playing. Kudos to the readers who got it, including award-winning poet Jan Steckel, and an occasional pen-pal I hope to get to talk to at length someday, recent Golden Heart winner, soon to be published by Avon, Lenora Bell.