You need to be able to read to be able to read. Especially if Toni Morrison did the writing. I at least thought I knew what it was for my eyes to sail across and down a page, through a flight of description or a feat of characterisation. At 11, I thought I could read. Then I read her. My mother told me I wasn’t ready. Not for Toni. My Aunt Katie caught my little-boy eye on her brand-new, great big copy of Beloved and told me: That’s for grown people. I tried it anyway. Then Toni seemed to tell me: All that reading you did before? That won’t cut it. You have to read me. She was going to make us work, not as a task, not for medicine, but because writing is an art and a reader should have a little art of his own.
I come from a family with a history of zero fanciness. Cleaners and drivers and coaches and catch-as-catch-can. Few diplomas, fewer degrees. But the women liked to read. Gloria Naylor and Sidney Sheldon. Stephen King and Danielle Steel. A man once left my Aunt Marge’s place with her copy of Roots like it was a piece of Tupperware, and she cursed him for years. The book wasn’t for dinner.
Reading a novel was entertainment and a point of pride. Reading a Toni Morrison novel was group therapy. My aunts, my mother and her friends would tackle Beloved in sections then get on the phone to run things by one another. With all due respect to the recently deceased Judith Krantz, I don’t recall them needing to do that for Scruples.
They admired the stew of a Morrison novel, the elegant density of its language—the tapestry of a hundred-word sentence, the finger snap of a lone word followed by a period, the staggering depictions of lust, death, hair care, lost limbs, baking and ghosts. Morrison made her audiences conversant in her—the metaphors of trauma, the melodramas of psychology. She made them hungry for more stew: ornate, disobedient, eerie literary inventions about black women, often with nary a white person of any significance in sight. The women in my family were reading a black woman imagining black women, their wants, their warts, how the omnipresence of this country’s history can make itself known on any old Thursday.
I wanted to feel what my mother felt, to know what made her mouth crack open like that or her eyebrows arch toward her scalp like a stretching cat. So, in my senior year of high school, I stole her new copy of Jazz, from 1992, the time-shuffling love story (among a man, his wife, and his dead mistress) that Morrison wrote after Beloved and which therefore wilted, unfairly, in its shadow. Much of the writing, seen through the eyes of a wise-weary narrator, is an achievement of attitude. But of all the arresting paragraphs in that book, this one actually cuffed me.
“Anything that happens after this party breaks up is nothing. Everything is now. It’s like war. Everyone is handsome, shining just thinking about other people’s blood. As though the red wash flying from veins not theirs is facial makeup patented for its glow. Inspiriting. Glamorous. Afterward there will be some chatter and recapitulation of what went on; nothing though like the action itself and the beat that pumps the heart. In war or at a party everyone is wily, intriguing; goals are set and altered; alliances rearranged.”
My mother is gone now, so I’ll always wonder if this is a paragraph that put a smile on her face. Or maybe it was just the book’s very first words: “Sth, I know that woman.”
That “Sth” is the sound of a woman sucking her teeth. For me, it was the second coolest use of “onomatopoeia” after learning how to say “onomatopoeia.” It was also distinctly black. That the “s” wasn’t a “5” but a syllable of vernacular disdain brought me into a world that I didn’t want to leave. A life spent savouring Toni Morrison, both as a novelist and a scalding, scaldingly moral literary critic, makes clear that almost no one has better opening sentences.
“He believed he was safe.” (Tar Baby)
“124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.” (Beloved)
“They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.” (Paradise)
“The woman’s legs are spread wide open, so I hum.” (Love)
“It wasn’t my fault. So you can’t blame me. I didn’t do it and I have no idea how it happened.” (God Help the Child)
For all of the astonishing edifices she built, the woman knew what to do with a brick.
Toni Morrison didn’t teach me how to read. But she did teach me how to read. Hers is the kind of writing that makes you rewind and slow down and ruminate. It’s the kind of writing that makes you rewind because, god, what you just read was that titanic, that perception-altering, that true, a spice on the tongue. These spasms of disbelief are so ecstatic that immediate rereading is the only cure—I get them from Nabokov and from her.
Morrison is dead now, her legend long secure. But what comedy to think how the writers and critics who loved her laboured to get her mastery treated as majesty when she’s so evidently supreme. The women in my family knew that long before the Swedes threw her a Nobel party. So did the people who took up writing in her wake. She did for generations of writers what Martin Scorsese did for generations of filmmakers—jolt them, for better and worse, into purpose. Morrison didn’t make me a writer, exactly. What she made me was a thinker. She made the thinking seem uniquely crucial to the matter of being alive.
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES