The Toni Morrison Survival Guide

This post is part of our Toni Morrison Reading Day: a celebration of  one of our favorite authors on the occasion of her new novel, Home. Check out the rest right here.

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When we decided to make Toni Morrison the focus of our first Riot Reading Day, I’d been kicking around the idea of re-reading all nine of her novels for a couple years already. “Kicking around” being the operative phrase in that sentence. I liked the idea of the project–and I find something really valuable about reading an author’s body of work in chronological order–but I was scared of it, too.

The creation of Toni Morrison Day gave me the perfect reason to channel my inner Elvis and get down with a little less conversation and a hell of a lot more (reading) action. Even though I didn’t get make it to the “A Mercy or Bust” finish line (I successfully completed Morrison’s first seven novels, ending with Paradise), I learned some good stuff.

Some tips, if you want to scale Mount Morrison too.

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Do start at the beginning. The Bluest Eye may not be Morrison’s best-known work, but it is a damn fine novel, and it is, without question, her most accessible. It will introduce you to some of the primary themes of her oeuvre and give you just a taste of her trademark weirdness without scaring you off. To borrow my friend Kevin Smokler’s analogy, you might be tempted to cannonball into the deep end and start with Beloved, but you’ll be much happier if you doggy-paddle first.

Don’t worry if you don’t always get it. In fact, feel good when you don’t get it. If you can make it all the way through any Toni Morrison novel without thinking half-dozen times that you’re not totally sure what’s happening, then you’re doing it wrong. These are difficult books, and you should have to work for it sometimes. Or a lot of times.

Do be generous with your reading schedule. The first time I did this project (for a college class), I read seven Morrison novels in fourteen weeks. Two weeks per novel is about right, so I must have been high when I decided to try to read nine of her novels in just twelve weeks. If you’re thinking, “But, Rebecca, I normally read a couple novels a week,” stop right there. So do I. Morrison is different.

Don’t read Toni Morrison at bedtime. Just don’t.

Do utilize palate cleansers. This is an intense reading experience, and you’ll need to take breaks during your reading and probably in between books to give your brain–and your increasingly fragile psyche–a chance to process. I don’t like to read more than one novel at a time, so I read a bunch of memoirs and narrative nonfiction and a graphic novel in the evenings when I couldn’t take any more Toni.

Don’t make any major life decisions. You know how they say you shouldn’t make major life changes while you’re in rehab? This is like that. Especially if, like me, you tend to port emotions from your reading into your real life.

Do read support material. You can get a ton out of these novels reading them by themselves, but you’ll be extra-awed by Morrison if you make time to read criticism and analysis. I started with the Cambridge Companion to Toni Morrison at Jeff’s recommendation and spun out to papers listed in the bibliographies and other resources I found online.

Don’t read the last 50 pages of any Morrison novel in public. I don’t care who you are, Morrison will make you do the ugly cry at least once. More likely, she’ll leave you feeling emotionally destroyed and ready to curl up in the fetal position…but in a good way? Yes. It’ll be a psychic shredding of the first order, and you’ll like it.

Do remember why you’re doing it. Challenging reading experiences are often the most rewarding, and their rewards are long-lasting. That’s certainly the case with Morrison. You will get stuck–it’s inevitable. You’ll want to stop. Hell, you might actually stop, and that’s okay. Know what you want to get out of the experience, and just keep moving forward when you can.

Don’t take my word for it. I sincerely believe that everyone can find something meaningful in Toni Morrison’s work. Pick up one of her novels and see for yourself.

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