This one’s more for me than for you. This year, I’d like to start keeping track of the books I read. I hate getting to the end of the year and not being able to remember the books I’ve read. I have a book journal I’ve started keeping at home, but I thought it might be nice to share my thoughts on what I’ve read with the world, in case any of you are looking for something to read and care at all about my opinion. These aren’t going to be critical, academic reviews or anything, just my general impressions…
I’ve had a tumultuous relationship wtih Toni Morrison’s work. In high school, I loved The Bluest Eye and Sula. Later, I tried reading Beloved and couldn’t get past the first 75-ish pages. I don’t know if it was my mood, or if the book just wasn’t my thing at the time, or what. After that, I gave Paradise a whirl, only to get about 40-50 pages in before giving up. and I hate giving up on books. But there comes a point where the working at it just isn’t fun anymore.
But one of my best friends, Jean, is completely and totally head-over-heels in love with Morrison’s work, and she lent me a copy of Song of Solomon at a meeting of the Studio Square Table (our monthly writing workshop along with Adam and Alex), insisting I read it. I put it off for a week or two, worrying that I’d have the same experience I’d had with the last two novels of Morrison’s I’d tried…I’m so glad I gave this one a fair try.
There’s one thing about Morrison’s writing that I always love, even in the books of hers that I couldn’t get through, and that’s her way of describing things. I tend to hate description in books, mostly because so many authors do it wrong and write long, flowery passages to describe something that end up saying not very much and boring the hell out of me. Morrison always manages to get to exactly the heart of the thing she’s describing in short, but powerful sentences. There’s still this line – “the blueberries tasted like church” – from one of her novels (I think from one of the ones I didn’t finish) that sticks with me because I was amazed at the time by how much it made sense to me. I knew exactly what that meant, though I’m sure it means different things to different people. The same was true in Song of Solomon, where everything from the water stain on the dining room table in the Dead home, to the berry-stained lips of the women were described in perfect detail succinctly, with intense emotion packed into tiny two to three word nuggets.
Milkman Dead’s story is one of the truest tales of “finding oneself” I’ve ever come across. I’m one of the furthest things from a black male that can possibly exist, and yet I identified with his journey from sheltered, naive young person to conflict with the oustide world to discovering who you are outside the context of your loved ones or your environment. It not only reminded me of myself generally, but it specifically reminded me of a male friend of mine. It always impresses me when an author can convincingly write the opposite gender. Yes, we’re all the same, but there are clear differences in voices and concerns. Morrison’s Milkman sounds like guys I know, as does the character of his best friend, Guitar, and she expertly captures the kind of close/antagonistic friendship generally found between men. And then there’s her women: Pilate, Ruth, Hagar, Corinthians…all of them eerily recognizable despite the less-than-orthodox choices they make. In Song of Solomon, despite the real-world injustices and social disparities portrayed therein, Morrison has created a world in which we want to live, because it is more vivid, colorful, warm, and full than the real world.
And then there’s this quote:
It sounded old. Deserve. Old and tired and beaten to death. Deserve. Now it seemed to him that he was always saying or thinking that he didn’t deserve some bad luck, or some bad treatment from others. He’d told Guitar that he didn’t ‘deserve’ his family’s dependence, hatred, or whatever. That he didn’t even ‘deserve’ to hear all the misery and mutual accusations his parents unloaded on him. Nor did he ‘deserve’ Hagar’s vengeance. But why shouldn’t his parents tell him their personal problems? If not him, then who? And if a stranger could try to kill him, surely Hagar, who knew him and whom he’d thrown away like a wad of chewing gum after the flavor was gone–she had a right to try to kill him too.
Apparently he though he deserved only to be loved–from a distance, though–and given what he wanted. And in return he would be…what? Pleasant? Generous? Maybe all he was really saying was: I am not responsible for your pain; share your happiness with me but not your unhappiness.
How brilliant is that?! And seriously, think about how many people in your life this quote might fit. If you think hard enough, you might even discover that sometimes it applies to you.