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The Essential Toni Morrison

The Essential Toni Morrison
Looking to read one of her books? Let us help.
February 18, 2021 would have been Toni Morrison’s 90th birthday. As we approach the anniversary of a global pandemic that has changed our lives in every way, it seems a fine time to dive back into the world of Toni Morrison. The questions she asked in a 2002 lecture seem wholly relevant now, almost 20 years later: “To what do we pay greatest allegiance? Family, language group, culture, country, gender? Religion, race? And if none of these matter, are we urbane, cosmopolitan, or simply lonely? In other words, how do we decide where we belong? What convinces us that we do?”
In everything Morrison wrote, she offered narratives that revealed the journeys of characters, specific but universal, flawed and imperfect, with a deeply American desire for freedom and adventure. One might say that because her characters were almost exclusively African-American, the quest to be free — in mind, body and spirit — was the consistent adventure. She was also a masterful crafter of windows; when you opened a book of hers, the worlds you entered were so rich with detail, you could feel the molecules around you change as if you’d just taken a long flight and were descending onto the tarmac in a town or city where you’d never been.
I’ll say this. Reading Morrison can be daunting. She won the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She was, and will remain for lifetimes to come, one of the finest writers to craft narrative in the English language. As Dwight Garner wrote when she died in 2019, “Morrison had a superfluity of gifts and, like few other writers of her era, bent language to her will. Her prose could be lush, or raw and demotic, or carefree and eccentric, often on a single page. She filtered folklore, biblical rhythms, dreams, choral voices and a steep awareness of history into her work. In the best of her 11 novels … she transmuted the basic matter of existence into profound works of art.”
One of the greatest joys of Toni Morrison’s work is knowing that you will never get it all on the first read. In her Nobel Prize speech, she famously said, “We know you can never do it properly — once and for all. Passion is never enough, neither is skill. But try.”
She was talking, ostensibly, about writing and writers. But I think it also applies to readers, her readers in particular, the millions of people around the world who have read and re-read her books. To read Toni Morrison is to know that from her brilliant opening lines to the stunning last pages that leave you shook that you will likely never match her wit and wisdom, but what joy there is in trying!
As someone who had the privilege of interviewing her several times over the last decade of her life, I think I can say with confidence that she wanted all of us — intellectuals and romance readers, book club aficionados and those of us who binge TV more than books — to get in where we fit in. Creatively, Toni Morrison set a large and lavish table of literature. If you’re new to her work, or haven’t read her in a long while, here are some thoughts about where to start.
Toni Morrison was born in 1931 in Lorain, Ohio. She worked for many years as a book editor, published her first novel in 1970 and was awarded the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature. She died in 2019.

 

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