Why I’m Reading Toni Morrison

February 28, 2012 9:27 am | Tags: , , , , | No Comments

One of the ongoing problems I have as a writer is deciding what to read next. This is, of course, what one might call a “good problem.” It’s not like I’m trying to figure out how to cure cancer or something. In my house, there are growing stacks of books, in various places—bedside table, recliner, coffee table, and so forth—that I have not yet read, and with each new book that I buy, chances grow that those unread books will remain, sadly, unread.

As a young (“emerging”?) writer, I feel a regular anxiety of not being as well-read as I would like to be. This is a bit irrational. Even my friends who are pursuing a PhD in literature who read hundreds of books in order to prepare for the comprehensive exam have plenty of holes in their personal canon. That’s just normal. There is too much great stuff to read, especially if one spends a portion of his/her time writing rather than reading. Sometimes the reading just stops because of the anxiety of influence.

A few summers ago, in order to placate my anxiety and ego, I devoted a summer to reading as much Faulkner and Nabokov as I possibly could. (I know: I don’t sound like a lot of fun to hang around with, right?). I somehow managed to go all through high school and college without being taught Faulkner once, and Nabokov always seemed like such a smart and mysterious artist whose work I wanted to puzzle over. I managed to knockout Pale Fire, Pnin, Transparent Things, Lolita (a re-read!), The Sound and The Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Absalom, Absalom! I can’t say I enjoyed any of this. It felt like work. Skulldrudgery. It was warm and beautiful outside, and I was inside reading about the worst people, dictionary in my lap to look up the many words I didn’t know, and regularly thinking about baseball scores rather than the novel in hand.

So, maybe it is a little odd to be jumping on this idea again—one author, as much as I can, go!

But that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’m following Rebecca Schinsky’s call to arms on The Book Lady’s Blog and will begin reading all of Toni Morrison’s novels, starting with The Bluest Eye and finishing with her new novel, Home, which will be released this year. You can, and should, read the details on Rebecca’s blog here and see if you want to do the same. In summation, Rebecca has read all of Morrison’s books before, is fired up about the release of Home, and decided to do it all over again. I dig it.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why this is appealing to me. I saw Rebecca’s call to arms on Twitter, read her blog post, and then the idea marinated in my mind for a few days. I read The Bluest Eye in college and thought, as with most first novels, that it had some problematic passages, but on the whole, I remember liking it. I read Beloved in grad school and thought it was absolutely fantastic. And yet, for whatever reason, I’ve never sat down and read everything of hers. To be fair, I think the only author I can say, with absolute certainity, that I’ve read all of his work, is F. Scott Fitzgerald. That’s my man.

I constantly worry that as a writer, and as a person, I have not read enough. I haven’t read enough of the best books, the “right” books, the books-writers-love books (interpretation: underappreciated books that all writers know and adore that the public does not. After all, how can I be part of the club if I haven’t read those?). There’s a lot to unpack there: fear, need for motivation, the desire to experience moving and engaging writing. Also, there is a part of me that will always itch to return to graduate school and study more. Read more. Even write papers. It almost certainly won’t happen—never say never and all that—but it isn’t likely.

Obviously, there are a multitude of reasons. I could spend pages writing all of this out, so let’s keep it simple. The Interwebs often give me motivation, sometimes good and sometimes bad, to get things done, and I feel that if I make this public, if I explain why, if I add myself to Rebecca’s fellow readers, then I have pretty good incentives to actually finish this. Morrison is a writer whose work has received a ton of critical study, so if I want to get all scholarly and whatnot, there should be no problem finding critical texts that can deepen my reading of Morrison’s books. What is there to lose?

I’ve started The Bluest Eye, and will work my way from the first book to the newest in chronological order. Join me!

Follow Michael on Twitter: @mpnye

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