“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.
She also knew how to name. Baby Suggs. True Belle. Pallas Truelove. Joe Trace. Sixo. Guitar. Jadine and Son. Stamp Paid. Milkman Dead. BoyBoy. Florens. Ajax (lord, Ajax). Kentucky Derby. Pecola Breedlove. Dorcas. Maginot Line. And, of course, Sethe — no name I’d ever heard before “Beloved,” no name I’d ever pronounced. It described a woman I’d never encounter beyond Euripides, a figure of guilt and rage and anguish, with a name one letter short of “seethe,” a name you, too, can’t pronounce without a suck of the teeth.
This is all to say that 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 labored 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.
I grew up with a Bible open on a dresser in my bedroom. My mother’s idea. Not a religious one, per se. She felt that an open Bible was an illuminating guide, a protectant, this night light for the soul. From time to time, I read it. But mostly, I let it guide me. Who knows where that Bible is now? What I have instead is some novel by Toni Morrison, kept near my bed, whether or not I’m reading it. A night light for my soul. And, in every way, a Good Book.