To Be Read
The Beautiful Difficulty of Toni Morrison
I have a confession. I’ve only read bits and pieces of Toni Morrison writing. In the scramble this morning to gather these books, to take the photo, I realized I have nearly every adult title that’s been published. The only book I’ve read in complete is Sula, and I’ve read it twice. My best friend from high school , gave it to me while she was completing her English degree. At that time, I was in a now defunct college program studying Fashion Marketing, where we had no literature assigned to us. I powered through that book, and it’s an artifact of my relationship with her, it holds a very special place in my heart, right next to her. Morrison’s prose was so powerful, the theme of friendship was so urgent. I’ve always loved reading and collecting books, but during that time I was deeply invested in reading and rereading Octavia E Butler’s catalogue of speculative fiction. As I came more into my womanhood, moving into in Bed-Stuy Brooklyn, I encountered more and more young Black folks who were ardent admirers (I might even say worshippers) of the work and the literary titan herself. It didn’t take long before I felt compelled to be one of the many.
Books were a way into a type of sophistication I sought as a girl, I always valued them, the idea of being seen reading felt sultry. My mother has an incredible library, that is always rotating. There are Black authors stretching from the late 18th century to the contemporary and as a girl and teenager I always saw Toni Morrison on the shelves and on the end table in the living room. I also saw my mother reading, often. So I knew that I could start with the books back at home. I went to her house and basically stole all her Toni Morrison Books. The motivation behind my brazenness: I differ greatly from my mother in how we value books. I collect books, whereas she reads them, and then donates them to the library or to one of the many streetside book venders in her East Village neighborhood. Unlike me, she didn’t mind that I made her temporary library my permanent one.
I picked up and started reading the pages of The Bluest Eye, then Song of Solomon, after that Paradise, and very recently Jazz. I was enthralled by the pages but stuck on a sentence level, kind of marveling at all that was happening. I put them down. Out of my range is all I can muster to say when I confront that her words are hard to read. Hard for me because of the looming grief of the precarity of Black life on the periphery or right in the midst of the beautiful storytelling. Reading Toni is hard, these words from my mother stick with me now as I type this confession.
Despite only reading a bit of her catalogue I witnessed the power of her influence. So many, many people were/are changed by her words. So many of the books that formed my consciousness and my politics, books that affirmed my identity, and books that stirred the culture that made me, were edited by her. The quiet shame I felt when folks talked of Deadman or Pecola – the discourse about the differences between the film Beloved and its book, slowly dissolved when I decided I could still appreciate the reaches of her mind and the power of her words. I keep picking up her books. And putting them back down. Determined to read them, in order and fully I joke and say I’ll do it once I’ve entered menopause. But really I’m dead serious. My wish is to have the range and the patience by then.
I love reading, it’s my second favorite great escape, TV is my first. But I have to be in the mood to read. Reading, for me, is about momentum and timing and commitment and habit. Collecting books has been a joy. Knowing that I have an archive of my own is a powerful feeling and it is so useful to have so many sources of reference, tangible sources, on hand for whenever the time comes. I would let my To Be Read pile of books stack up from the floor to my 12 foot ceilings. This would probably drive my mother mad and I would just start another column. I suspect she’d find a way to appreciate it though.
I’m curious though, which books do you have that you’re savoring, waiting for the right time to read? Which books do you put down, and pick up, and maybe put back down again? Which books have you read over and over again? Which books have you bought just so you know they are there waiting for you?
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