Neil Gaiman: Why our future depends on libraries, reading and daydreaming

A lecture explaining why using our imaginations, and providing for others to use theirs, is an obligation for all citizens

Susan Cooper: libraries are the frontline in the war for the imagination

Neil Gaiman
‘We have an obligation to imagine’ … Neil Gaiman gives The Reading Agency annual lecture on the future of reading and libraries with a focus on young people. Photograph: Robin Mayes

It’s important for people to tell you what side they are on and why, and whether they might be biased. A declaration of members’ interests, of a sort. So, I am going to be talking to you about reading. I’m going to tell you that libraries are important. I’m going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do. I’m going to make an impassioned plea for people to understand what libraries and librarians are, and to preserve both of these things.

And I am biased, obviously and enormously: I’m an author, often an author of fiction. I write for children and for adults. For about 30 years I have been earning my living though my words, mostly by making things up and writing them down. It is obviously in my interest for people to read, for them to read fiction, for libraries and librarians to exist and help foster a love of reading and places in which reading can occur.

So I’m biased as a writer. But I am much, much more biased as a reader. And I am even more biased as a British citizen.

And I’m here giving this talk tonight, under the auspices of the Reading Agency: a charity whose mission is to give everyone an equal chance in life by helping people become confident and enthusiastic readers. Which supports literacy programs, and libraries and individuals and nakedly and wantonly encourages the act of reading. Because, they tell us, everything changes when we read.

And it’s that change, and that act of reading that I’m here to talk about tonight. I want to talk about what reading does. What it’s good for.

I was once in New York, and I listened to a talk about the building of private prisons – a huge growth industry in America. The prison industry needs to plan its future growth – how many cells are they going to need? How many prisoners are there going to be, 15 years from now? And they found they could predict it very easily, using a pretty simple algorithm, based on asking what percentage of 10 and 11-year-olds couldn’t read. And certainly couldn’t read for pleasure.

It’s not one to one: you can’t say that a literate society has no criminality. But there are very real correlations.

And I think some of those correlations, the simplest, come from something very simple. Literate people read fiction.

Fiction has two uses. Firstly, it’s a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end … that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything. And reading is key. There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a post-literate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but those days are gone: words are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading. People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate, and translation programs only go so far.

The simplest way to make sure that we raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity. And that means, at its simplest, finding books that they enjoy, giving them access to those books, and letting them read them.

I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children. Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children’s books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading. I’ve seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy.

Enid Blyton's Famous Five book Five Get Into a Fix
No such thing as a bad writer… Enid Blyton’s Famous Five. Photograph: Greg Balfour Evans/Alamy

It’s tosh. It’s snobbery and it’s foolishness. There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn’t hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it. Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is a route to other books you may prefer. And not everyone has the same taste as you.

Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.

We need our children to get onto the reading ladder: anything that they enjoy reading will move them up, rung by rung, into literacy. (Also, do not do what this author did when his 11-year-old daughter was into RL Stine, which is to go and get a copy of Stephen King’s Carrie, saying if you liked those you’ll love this! Holly read nothing but safe stories of settlers on prairies for the rest of her teenage years, and still glares at me when Stephen King’s name is mentioned.)

And the second thing fiction does is to build empathy. When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from 26 letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.

You’re also finding out something as you read vitally important for making your way in the world. And it’s this:

The world doesn’t have to be like this. Things can be different.

I was in China in 2007, at the first party-approved science fiction and fantasy convention in Chinese history. And at one point I took a top official aside and asked him Why? SF had been disapproved of for a long time. What had changed?

It’s simple, he told me. The Chinese were brilliant at making things if other people brought them the plans. But they did not innovate and they did not invent. They did not imagine. So they sent a delegation to the US, to Apple, to Microsoft, to Google, and they asked the people there who were inventing the future about themselves. And they found that all of them had read science fiction when they were boys or girls.

Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you’ve never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.

And while we’re on the subject, I’d like to say a few words about escapism. I hear the term bandied about as if it’s a bad thing. As if “escapist” fiction is a cheap opiate used by the muddled and the foolish and the deluded, and the only fiction that is worthy, for adults or for children, is mimetic fiction, mirroring the worst of the world the reader finds herself in.

If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.

Tolkien's illustration of Bilbo Baggins's home
Tolkien’s illustration of Bilbo’s home, Bag End. Photograph: HarperCollins

Another way to destroy a child’s love of reading, of course, is to make sure there are no books of any kind around. And to give them nowhere to read those books. I was lucky. I had an excellent local library growing up. I had the kind of parents who could be persuaded to drop me off in the library on their way to work in summer holidays, and the kind of librarians who did not mind a small, unaccompanied boy heading back into the children’s library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue, looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives or witches or wonders. And when I had finished reading the children’s’ library I began on the adult books.

They were good librarians. They liked books and they liked the books being read. They taught me how to order books from other libraries on inter-library loans. They had no snobbery about anything I read. They just seemed to like that there was this wide-eyed little boy who loved to read, and would talk to me about the books I was reading, they would find me other books in a series, they would help. They treated me as another reader – nothing less or more – which meant they treated me with respect. I was not used to being treated with respect as an eight-year-old.

But libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.

I worry that here in the 21st century people misunderstand what libraries are and the purpose of them. If you perceive a library as a shelf of books, it may seem antiquated or outdated in a world in which most, but not all, books in print exist digitally. But that is to miss the point fundamentally.

I think it has to do with nature of information. Information has value, and the right information has enormous value. For all of human history, we have lived in a time of information scarcity, and having the needed information was always important, and always worth something: when to plant crops, where to find things, maps and histories and stories – they were always good for a meal and company. Information was a valuable thing, and those who had it or could obtain it could charge for that service.

In the last few years, we’ve moved from an information-scarce economy to one driven by an information glut. According to Eric Schmidt of Google, every two days now the human race creates as much information as we did from the dawn of civilisation until 2003. That’s about five exobytes of data a day, for those of you keeping score. The challenge becomes, not finding that scarce plant growing in the desert, but finding a specific plant growing in a jungle. We are going to need help navigating that information to find the thing we actually need.

A boy reading in his school library
Photograph: Alamy

Libraries are places that people go to for information. Books are only the tip of the information iceberg: they are there, and libraries can provide you freely and legally with books. More children are borrowing books from libraries than ever before – books of all kinds: paper and digital and audio. But libraries are also, for example, places that people, who may not have computers, who may not have internet connections, can go online without paying anything: hugely important when the way you find out about jobs, apply for jobs or apply for benefits is increasingly migrating exclusively online. Librarians can help these people navigate that world.

I do not believe that all books will or should migrate onto screens: as Douglas Adams once pointed out to me, more than 20 years before the Kindle turned up, a physical book is like a shark. Sharks are old: there were sharks in the ocean before the dinosaurs. And the reason there are still sharks around is that sharks are better at being sharks than anything else is. Physical books are tough, hard to destroy, bath-resistant, solar-operated, feel good in your hand: they are good at being books, and there will always be a place for them. They belong in libraries, just as libraries have already become places you can go to get access to ebooks, and audiobooks and DVDs and web content.

A library is a place that is a repository of information and gives every citizen equal access to it. That includes health information. And mental health information. It’s a community space. It’s a place of safety, a haven from the world. It’s a place with librarians in it. What the libraries of the future will be like is something we should be imagining now.

Literacy is more important than ever it was, in this world of text and email, a world of written information. We need to read and write, we need global citizens who can read comfortably, comprehend what they are reading, understand nuance, and make themselves understood.

Libraries really are the gates to the future. So it is unfortunate that, round the world, we observe local authorities seizing the opportunity to close libraries as an easy way to save money, without realising that they are stealing from the future to pay for today. They are closing the gates that should be open.

According to a recent study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, England is the “only country where the oldest age group has higher proficiency in both literacy and numeracy than the youngest group, after other factors, such as gender, socio-economic backgrounds and type of occupations are taken into account”.

Or to put it another way, our children and our grandchildren are less literate and less numerate than we are. They are less able to navigate the world, to understand it to solve problems. They can be more easily lied to and misled, will be less able to change the world in which they find themselves, be less employable. All of these things. And as a country, England will fall behind other developed nations because it will lack a skilled workforce.

Books are the way that we communicate with the dead. The way that we learn lessons from those who are no longer with us, that humanity has built on itself, progressed, made knowledge incremental rather than something that has to be relearned, over and over. There are tales that are older than most countries, tales that have long outlasted the cultures and the buildings in which they were first told.

I think we have responsibilities to the future. Responsibilities and obligations to children, to the adults those children will become, to the world they will find themselves inhabiting. All of us – as readers, as writers, as citizens – have obligations. I thought I’d try and spell out some of these obligations here.

I believe we have an obligation to read for pleasure, in private and in public places. If we read for pleasure, if others see us reading, then we learn, we exercise our imaginations. We show others that reading is a good thing.

We have an obligation to support libraries. To use libraries, to encourage others to use libraries, to protest the closure of libraries. If you do not value libraries then you do not value information or culture or wisdom. You are silencing the voices of the past and you are damaging the future.

We have an obligation to read aloud to our children. To read them things they enjoy. To read to them stories we are already tired of. To do the voices, to make it interesting, and not to stop reading to them just because they learn to read to themselves. Use reading-aloud time as bonding time, as time when no phones are being checked, when the distractions of the world are put aside.

We have an obligation to use the language. To push ourselves: to find out what words mean and how to deploy them, to communicate clearly, to say what we mean. We must not to attempt to freeze language, or to pretend it is a dead thing that must be revered, but we should use it as a living thing, that flows, that borrows words, that allows meanings and pronunciations to change with time.

We writers – and especially writers for children, but all writers – have an obligation to our readers: it’s the obligation to write true things, especially important when we are creating tales of people who do not exist in places that never were – to understand that truth is not in what happens but what it tells us about who we are. Fiction is the lie that tells the truth, after all. We have an obligation not to bore our readers, but to make them need to turn the pages. One of the best cures for a reluctant reader, after all, is a tale they cannot stop themselves from reading. And while we must tell our readers true things and give them weapons and give them armour and pass on whatever wisdom we have gleaned from our short stay on this green world, we have an obligation not to preach, not to lecture, not to force predigested morals and messages down our readers’ throats like adult birds feeding their babies pre-masticated maggots; and we have an obligation never, ever, under any circumstances, to write anything for children that we would not want to read ourselves.

We have an obligation to understand and to acknowledge that as writers for children we are doing important work, because if we mess it up and write dull books that turn children away from reading and from books, we ‘ve lessened our own future and diminished theirs.

We all – adults and children, writers and readers – have an obligation to daydream. We have an obligation to imagine. It is easy to pretend that nobody can change anything, that we are in a world in which society is huge and the individual is less than nothing: an atom in a wall, a grain of rice in a rice field. But the truth is, individuals change their world over and over, individuals make the future, and they do it by imagining that things can be different.

Look around you: I mean it. Pause, for a moment and look around the room that you are in. I’m going to point out something so obvious that it tends to be forgotten. It’s this: that everything you can see, including the walls, was, at some point, imagined. Someone decided it was easier to sit on a chair than on the ground and imagined the chair. Someone had to imagine a way that I could talk to you in London right now without us all getting rained on.This room and the things in it, and all the other things in this building, this city, exist because, over and over and over, people imagined things.

We have an obligation to make things beautiful. Not to leave the world uglier than we found it, not to empty the oceans, not to leave our problems for the next generation. We have an obligation to clean up after ourselves, and not leave our children with a world we’ve shortsightedly messed up, shortchanged, and crippled.

We have an obligation to tell our politicians what we want, to vote against politicians of whatever party who do not understand the value of reading in creating worthwhile citizens, who do not want to act to preserve and protect knowledge and encourage literacy. This is not a matter of party politics. This is a matter of common humanity.

Albert Einstein was asked once how we could make our children intelligent. His reply was both simple and wise. “If you want your children to be intelligent,” he said, “read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.” He understood the value of reading, and of imagining. I hope we can give our children a world in which they will read, and be read to, and imagine, and understand.

This is an edited version of Neil Gaiman’s lecture for the Reading Agency, delivered on Monday October 14 at the Barbican in London. The Reading Agency’s annual lecture series was initiated in 2012 as a platform for leading writers and thinkers to share original, challenging ideas about reading and libraries.

 

FIVE HABITS OF CREATIVE PEOPLE

WHETHER IT’S GETTING INTO A ROUTINE OR KNOWING WHEN TO GIVE UP, HERE ARE THE HABITS CREATIVE PEOPLE HAVE CULTIVATED.

There is no secret trick to becoming more creative, but the good news is creativity is a skill you can build.

That means that you can become more creative with the right time and effort. Whenever you are picking up a new skill, though, it is good to find role models who have the abilities you want and to follow their lead.

Over the past 10 years, I have written quite a bit about creativity. Along the way, I have encountered the stories of a number of individuals who have inspired me to think about what it takes to improve my own creative abilities. These individuals have been able to solve problems (both practical and artistic) in new ways. Here are five habits that emerge from their efforts.

THEY STUDY THE DETAILS.

A number of people I have talked to have worried that their ability to be creative might be hampered by knowing too much. They feel like having too much knowledge will curse them into sticking with their routines.

Creative individuals delve into the details of the problems they are trying to solve. When Fiona Fairhurst and her design team at Speedo were trying to create a swimsuit that would help swimmers shave seconds off their times, they looked at all kinds of ways to reduce the forces of drag. Their final design drew from many different sources including the structure of shark skin and the use of stretch materials that decreased swimmer’s muscle vibrations.

Similarly, the Swiss engineer George de Mestral noticed that pesky cockleburs would stick to his dog’s fur after going out for a walk. He studied the cockleburs under a microscope and found that they stuck so persistently because tiny hooks on the seed would get caught in the dog’s tangled fur. Using this principle, he had cloth manufacturers create synthetic cocklebur hooks and dog fur and invented Velcro.

THEY HAVE DEVELOPED A DISCIPLINED ROUTINE.

The standard image of the creative genius is one of a tortured soul who works in fits of inspiration in between bouts of self-destructive behavior. But, many of the most creative people are much more disciplined than that. They treat their creativity like a job and work at it consistently.

A classic example of this type is the prolific authorStephen King. If ever there was someone whose work would fit the expected output of a tortured soul, it would be King’s. Yet, he has talked often about the role of routines in his work. He writes every morning. As he points out, routines for creativity are just as important as routines for sleeping. You cannot wait for the muse. You have to work hard before it appears.

THEY REALIZE THAT EVERYTHING IS IMPORTANT

As a college professor, my least favorite question asked by students is: “Will this be on the exam?” The answer to that question is always: “Yes, but it may not be my exam.” That is because you never know what the source of a great idea is going to be. The stories behind creative ideas are fascinating to read, but they are only clear in retrospect.

For example, James Dyson’s inspiration for the bagless vacuum cleaner came from his knowledge of the industrial cyclones used to clear the air in sawmills. When Dyson’s curiosity led him to learn about sawmills, he could not have known that knowledge would form the basis of a multimillion dollar company.

A key to creativity is to pursue knowledge without a sense of whether it will be relevant in the future. Too often, people assume that they can judge in advance what they need to understand and what they do not. Instead, creative people build up their knowledge base so that they will be ready for the opportunities that come later.

THEY CONSIDER THE TIMING.

Truly successful creative endeavors are products that fit into their time. That means that creative individuals need to understand both the technical aspects of their craft as well as the context in which the work is being done.

Consider the great jazz trumpet player Miles Davis. Davis cut his musical teeth during the bebop era. Bebop was characterized by fast flurries of notes played with technical precision over fast chord changes. He began to react against this style in recordings starting in the late 1940s, but it wasn’t until the late 1950s that the world was ready for the sound that characterized albums like Birth Of The Cool (which was released well after it was recorded) and Kind Of Blue, which had an enormous impact both on listeners and other players.

By the late 1960s, Davis was ready to react against the prevailing context again with his early fusion album Bitches Brew. The key to the success of these works was an understanding of the system in which they were being recorded and heard.

On the technical side of innovation, Steve Jobs was a master at understanding the role of the system. The iPod was not the first MP3 player on the market. Jobs thought deeply about the user and the situation in which the iPod would be used. The attention to the context in which the device would be employed led to the parallel development of iTunes, which made the iPod a true plug-and-play device.

THEY KNOW WHEN TO GIVE UP

Finally, when you look at stories of creativity, it is easy to be seduced by the persistence of creative people. Not only did James Dyson take inspiration from far-flung sources, but he also spent years working on the prototype of the original Dyson vacuum.

There is a danger in drawing the lesson that creative people stick with every idea in order to see them through. Economists have the concept of a sunk cost. Sunk costs are the time, energy, and money that have already been invested in a project. Good decisions do not allow sunk costs to have an undue impact on choices. Just because you have already spent a lot of time or money on a project does not mean that time will have been wasted if you walk away from the project. Instead, you should evaluate projects by whether they are likely to succeed with continued effort, independent of the investment you have made so far.

Richard Nisbett and his colleagues have studied successful creative individuals (like academics who work at the forefront of their disciplines). The ones who are most successful in the long run are actually those who are willing to walk away from projects that are not succeeding, even when they have already put considerable effort into those projects. That is, creative success means knowing when to throw in the towel and move on to something else.

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview

Love, Sex, and the World Between

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“Part of the modern ideology of love is to assume that love and sex always go together… And probably the greatest problem for human beings is that they just don’t.”

“Is sex necessary?” young E.B. White and James Thurber asked in their endlessly delightful 1929 collaboration. More than eight decades later, philosopher Alain de Botton asserted that to think more and better about sex is to reclaim our humanity. And yet for all of our musings on sex, it remains oddly disconnected from our best understanding of love.

In Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview (public library) — the superb 1978 conversation with Jonathan Cott that ranked among the best biographies, memoirs, and history books of 2013 and also gave us the beloved author on the false divide between “high” and pop culture and how our cultural polarities imprison us — Sontag, one of the most celebrated minds of the last century, who spent decades contemplating love and being discombobulated over sex, zooms in with her characteristic precision on our culture’s impossible expectations of the relationship between the two:

We ask everything of love. We ask it to be anarchic. We ask it to be the glue that holds the family together, that allows society to be orderly and allows all kinds of material processes to be transmitted from one generation to another. But I think that the connection between love and sex is very mysterious. Part of the modern ideology of love is to assume that love and sex always go together. They can, I suppose, but I think rather to the detriment of either one or the other. And probably the greatest problem for human beings is that they just don’t. And why do people want to be in love? That’s really interesting. Partly, they want to be in love the way you want to go on a roller coaster again — even knowing you’re going to have your heart broken. What fascinates me about love is what it has to do with all the cultural expectations and the values that have been put into it. I’ve always been amazed by the people who say, “I fell in love, I was madly, passionately in love, and I had this affair.” And then a lot of stuff is described and you ask, “How long did it last?” And the person will say, “A week, I just couldn’t stand him or her.”

Susan Sontag’s private thoughts on love, culled from her published diaries, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton. Click image for details.

Sontag, whose timeless and often radical wisdom has addressed everything fromwhy photography is a form of violent consumerism to how to improve educationto the creative benefits of boredom to why lists appeal to us, explores platonic love as another concept loaded with cultural ambivalence:

I have loved people passionately whom I wouldn’t have slept with for anything, but I think that’s something else. That’s friendship — love, which can be a tremendously passionate emotion, and it can be tender and involve a desire to hug or whatever. But it certainly doesn’t mean you want to take off your clothes with that person. But certain friendships can be erotic. Oh, I think friendship is very erotic, but it isn’t necessarily sexual. I think all my relationships are erotic: I can’t imagine being fond of somebody I don’t want to touch or hug, so therefore there’s always an erotic aspect to some extent.

Ultimately, however, she returns to the toxic age-related stereotypes and polarities to which we subscribe as a culture, to which she points as the root of our unease about love:

Our ideas of love are terribly bound up in our ambivalence about these two conditions — the positive and negative valuations of childhood, the positive and negative valuations of adulthood. And I think that, for many people, love signifies a return to values that are represented by childhood and that seem censored by the dried-up, mechanized, adult kinds of coercions of work and rules and responsibilities and impersonality. I mean, love is sensuality and play and irresponsibility and hedonism and being silly, and it gets to be thought of in terms of dependence and becoming weaker and getting into some kind of emotional slavery and treating the loved one as some kind of parent figure or sibling. You reproduce a part of what you were as a child when you weren’t free and were completely dependent on your parents, particularly your mother.

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview remains a most highly recommended read in its entirety. Complement it with Alain de Botton on how to think more about sex and Sontag’s illustrated meditations on love.

Young Delacroix on the Importance of Solitude in Creative Work and How to Resist Social Distractions

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“Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul… Seek solitude.”

“One can never be alone enough to write,” Susan Sontag lamented in her journal. “People who grow bored in their own company seem to me in danger,” the great Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky admonished the young. And yet despite the vast creative and psychological benefits of boredom, we have grown so afraid of it that we have unlearned — or refused to learn altogether — the essential art of being alone, so very necessary for contemplation and creative work.

The great French artist and dedicated diaristEugène Delacroix (April 26, 1798–August 13, 1863) examined this paradox with enormous elegance and prescience two centuries before our present epidemic of compulsive sociality and allergy to solitude.

As he approached his twenty-sixth birthday, Delacroix began to formulate what would become a defining concern of his youth and one of increasing urgency for us today, amid our age of exponentially swelling social demands and distractions — the challenge of mediating between the allure of social life and the “fertile solitude” necessary for creative work, which Hemingway grimly extolled in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

Eugène Delacroix, self-portrait, 1837

Writing in The Journal of Eugène Delacroix (public library) in early January of 1824, the young artist addresses himself directly, as he often does in the diary:

Poor fellow! How can you do great work when you’re always having to rub shoulders with everything that is vulgar. Think of the great Michelangelo. Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul. You are always being lured away by foolish distractions. Seek solitude. If your life is well ordered your health will not suffer.

By the end of March, he is fully consumed by the polarizing pull of these conflicting needs for sociality and solitude. (A century and a half later, the great Wendell Berry captured their yin-yang beautifully when he wrote that in solitude “one’s inner voices become audible [and] one responds more clearly to other lives.”) In his growing contempt for the vulgarity of the art world’s posturing and the charade of networking, Delacroix finds himself doubly tormented by this polarity:

I must work alone. I think that going into society from time to time, or just going out and seeing people, does not do much harm to one’s work and spiritual progress, in spite of what many so-called artists say to the contrary. Associating with people of that kind is far more dangerous; their conversation is always commonplace. I must go back to being alone. Moreover, I must try to live austerely, as Plato did. How can one keep one’s enthusiasm concentrated on a subject when one is always at the mercy of other people and in constant need of their society? … The things we experience for ourselves when we are alone are much stronger and much fresher. However pleasant it may be to communicate one’s emotions to a friend there are too many fine shades of feeling to be explained, and although each probably perceives them, he does so in his own way an d thus the impression is weakened for both.

The first Sunday of April, shortly before his twenty-sixth birthday, he revisits the subject with greater resolve:

Everything tells me that I need to live a more solitary life. The loveliest and most precious moments of my life are slipping away in amusements which, in truth, bring me nothing but boredom. The possibility, or the constant expectation, of being interrupted is already beginning to weaken what little strength I have left after wasting my time for hours the night before. When my memory has nothing important to feed on, it pines and dies. My mind is continually occupied in useless scheming. Countless valuable ideas miscarry because there is no continuity in my thoughts. They burn me up and lay my mind to waste. The enemy is within my gates, in my very heart; I feel his hand everywhere.

Two decades before Kierkegaard’s memorable case for the value of being “idle” in one’s own company and a century before Bertrand Russell’s incisive insistence on the rewards of “fruitful monotony,” young Delacroix exhorts himself:

Think of the blessings that await you, not of the emptiness that drives you to seek constant distraction. Think of having peace of mind and a reliable memory, of the self-control that a well-ordained life will bring, of health not undermined by endless concessions to the passing excesses which other people’s society entails, of uninterrupted work, and plenty of it.

Illustration by Carson Ellis from her book ‘Home.’ Click image for more.

The Journal of Eugène Delacroix is a magnificent read in its entirety — a treasure trove of insight on art and life from one of the most luminous and creatively restless minds in history. (A word of caution here: The 1995 Phaidon edition by Hubert Wellington, while affordable and more readily available, is printed on paper so woefully thin it is nearly translucent, making reading difficult and unpleasant — to say nothing of underlining, even the gentlest form of which practically tears the page. The 1995 Princeton University Press edition by Michele Hannosh, while out of print and prohibitively expensive, is far superior — pleasurably printed, intelligently edited, and a true masterwork of scholarship reconstructing missing documents. Perhaps a smart publisher invested in cultural preservation will consider bringing it back into print.)

For a complementary perspective, see Wendell Berry on despair and solitude, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on why “productive solitude” is essential for the healthy psyche, and Sara Maitland on how to be alone in our age of inescapable togetherness, then revisit famous writers and artists — including Delacroix himself — on the creative benefits of keeping a diary.

A 101-year-old shares her best advice for young women

“Just go ahead and do your thing no matter what,” says Marian Cannon Schlesinger to today’s young women.

At 101 years of age, she is still painting, writing, watching Rachel Maddow, and reading two newspapers a day.

As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s assassination, many of the people who can recall the era in detail have passed on.

Marian Cannon Schlesinger was married to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., historian, speechwriter and special advisor to President John F. Kennedy, living in D.C. and raising four children during his Washington years.

Well-traveled, having studied in China prior to their marriage, she returned to Cambridge, Massachusetts after their divorce. She has written and illustrated five children’s books and, in 2012, published the second volume of her memoirs: “I Remember: A Life of Politics, Painting and People.”

I sat down with her recently to hear about her time in Washington, memories of being raised an “academic child” at Harvard, advice for independent women, and recipes for leading a “full life.”

Amidst all the cheering from individuals such as “Lean In’s” Sheryl Sandberg, many educated women of privilege in America have opted out of careers and public engagement to raise families, touting domesticity as a singular focus, in part because the alternative juggling act is so difficult and the infrastructure in the U.S. to support working parents is so paltry.

A centenarian who participated in a relatively traditional marriage might be the last person one would expect to call these women out.

But when I talked to her, Ms. Schlesinger refocused the conversation on responsibility as much as personal happiness: “Well-taken-care-of women who are well-educated, highly intelligent, well-read — a woman who has all this quality, all this talent, all this energy and yet nowhere to put it — I don’t know,” she said. “I would start by saying you can involve yourself in local problems. There are all sorts of things that have to be tended to in the world.”

What are you working on and doing with your days at this point?

Reading the newspaper, watching television and working on another book.

You spent your entire childhood among luminaries. Your father was the Francis Lee Higgins Professor of Physiology at Harvard for forty years. Your mother was a celebrated novelist and helped found Planned Parenthood. Were you impressed by all of this?

I think that’s why June Bingham and I used to have such fun over the whole thing in Washington. We didn’t take it very seriously because we had seen something of the world before we arrived.

We had a lot of fun as a family and we always had lots of people coming in and out of the house. My mother ran an “open” house really and she’d take care of all these sort of crazy relatives who had nervous breakdowns and things like that. These two wonderful aunts lived with us. So, I had three mothers, in a way.

My mother was very active in politics. She was out in the world and my two aunts were professional women and, for that period, it was rare. One of them was a founder of medical social services at Massachusetts General Hospital and the other, who had beautiful taste, owned a children’s store in Harvard Square from which generations of children were clothed.

How did you end up in China to study art after college?

“My mother sent each child after they completed college to some exotic place to sink or swim.”

My sister was married to John Fairbank and they were living in China at the time. My mother sent each child after they completed college to some exotic place to sink or swim. After Radcliffe, I took the trip by myself across the United States, got a boat in San Francisco headed for China.

How did that influence you?

A gentleman came every day and taught me how to use a Chinese brush and the whole technique of the way Chinese painting is done. There is something about the use of a Chinese brush, which is just an exquisite instrument, and it taught me so much about how to draw. A lot of people don’t draw. They just paint. I draw and paint but I feel that drawing is basic to my kind of art and I feel as though my time in China refined my work.

john f kennedeyUniversalImagesGroup/Getty Images

What was the Kennedy presidency like for you?

Very go-go, if you know what I mean. And of course, it was very exciting too. There was the Bay of Pigs and the missile crisis in Cuba, those were real crisis, and then there was an awful lot of bogus stuff too.

Like what?

Oh I don’t know … I had an awfully good time.

Have politics changed today?

It was kind of like a small town in the Kennedy days. There were parties every night. We often dined at the White House. It was really mad.

There was a real family feeling—I think that was somewhat fostered by Bobby Kennedy and Ethel because they had a great sense of family. You’d go out to their house in Hickory Hill and there’d be all sorts of people gathered at their place. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara was there, young law clerks and, oh, all sorts of other people. I can’t remember. I’m only 101 years old!

I think I was perhaps not as aware of political violence or what was involved. I was aware of the civil rights work but I wasn’t as sensitive to it as I became later on. A lot of this good work was going on at the time but I suppose I was preoccupied by the momentum of it all including raising my four teenagers.

There were so many things played upon me at the time. I wasn’t involved with the mechanics of getting elected at that point. I wasn’t active in politics until afterwards when I went on a trip with Scotty Lanahan, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s daughter, who was a great friend of mine, and two other women. We went out and campaigned for Johnson in 1964. That was terrific fun. I never had such a good time as that.

What advice do you have on how to be a free-spirited woman?

Just go ahead and do your thing no matter what.

Also, my mother had said, ‘It doesn’t really matter if your house is that dirty. Go ahead and do your thing. Don’t pay too much attention to housekeeping.’ Of course, she did have a nice maid who came in every day but we didn’t have any live-in servants. My mother did most of the cooking. Sometimes it was not so good, but it was adequate.

In those days, women who had higher education, especially back in my childhood, were rather rare. The fact that they’ve gone out and gotten this education has differentiated them from other people in a way.

But there are strong women everywhere whether they have higher education or not! There have always been strong women.

This idea that feminism was created in the last twenty years is ridiculous. When you think of all the women that went across the continent in covered wagons. Really. It’s ridiculous. It’s a lot of baloney. If they’d read a little history, they’d find out that women have been powerful characters all through the history of the United States.

Young Woman with Hat and SunglassesFlickr / Chris JL

You must recognize, though, that some women still can’t find their voice?

I think there are a lot of privileged women who are frustrated. They just don’t know what they want to do and they need to go out and use their education and talent. I’m very fortunate because not only do I paint but I also write. I had plenty to do.

“I think I’ve been very lucky. But I think that I’ve made some of it for myself. I never gave up. I wanted it all, in other words, and I think I really almost got it all too.”

I was thinking about a friend of mine who, before she married, was quite active in Massachusetts politics. And then she married a man who was very well off and she was well-supported and had two children and then, once the children were all grown up, here she was well-supported and not even doing anything with it.

Well-taken-care-of women who are well-educated, highly intelligent, well-read – a woman who has all this quality, all this talent, all this energy and yet nowhere to put it—I don’t know. I really feel very sorry for them.

What would you say to these women?

I would start by saying you can involve yourself in local problems. There are all sorts of things that have to be tended to in the world.

Early on I decided being a painter was what I wanted to be but I wanted to be a lot of other things too. I wanted to write. I wanted to play tennis. I wanted to have a lot of friends. I wanted to have a lot of beaus. I think I’ve been very lucky. But I think that I’ve made some of it for myself. I never gave up. I wanted it all, in other words, and I think I really almost got it all too.

I was thinking the other day about never giving up. I remember when my husband and I separated and I stayed on in Washington for about a year before I moved back to Cambridge on my own. […] But then I sort of gathered myself together, moved back to Cambridge and got organized.

How did you get organized?

I renewed a lot of friendships.

What was it like to be neighbors with Julia Child?

She was terribly busy. I’d have people over for the afternoons and she’d come but I’ll never forget the time I had to her to lunch before she went back to California. I must say I made a very good meal and she said, ‘oh, Marian, this is the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted.’

What did you make?

Gnocchi. We made gnocchi, green salad and fruit for desert. Pretty good and the gnocchi, it was delicious too.

Where do you get your news?

I read two newspapers a day. I also read The Nation and The New Yorker, which has become such a bore. Every once in a while there’s a wonderful murder in Vanity Fair which I love, especially a society murder, if you know what I mean?

I like to watch Rachel Maddow, if I can stay awake that late, I like her so much and Chris Matthews and Mister Ed who I love on MSNBC.

Favorite places to dine out in Cambridge?

God, I can’t remember. No one went out to dinner in the ’50s.

But I will tell you what I used to do with this great friend of mine, Sheila Gilmore, who was an original. She was the stepdaughter of the Harvard philosopher Alfred Whitehead and her husband was a professor of history at Harvard. She and I used to go to the original Legal Seafood down in Inman Square. We used to set up at the counter and I’d have a dozen oysters and a martini. I’ve forgotten what she had but I always remember this. It was my idea of the perfect meal.

Any thoughts on the Red Sox?

I think they’re terrific but I can’t stay awake and watch them. I find the Patriots are rather an irritating group – so full of themselves. I prefer the Red Sox to the Patriots.

Craft CoffeeFacebook/Craft Coffee

Do you have any habits or secrets to living to be 101?

I drink a cup of coffee every morning. My nice son brings me a cup of coffee and he’s done that now for some years, which I think is terribly nice of him.

Her son Andrew chimes in: “You have a drink every night.”

A pretty watered down drink! It’s symbolic more than anything

What advice do you have on how to live a full life?

Just keep going.

Have lots of people in the house and lots of different kinds of people – young, old, black, white, people from all over the world. People have always energized me.

Your hope for the next president?

Good old Hillary would be okay.

 

In Miss Eudora’s Garden

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There are certain towns that are forever linked with the authors who lived there. Oxford, Mississippi, is Faulkner land, parts of New Orleans’s Toulouse Street belong irrevocably to Tennessee Williams, and Monroeville, Alabama, is Harper Lee’s territory as surely as if it had been marked on the state map. If Jackson, Mississippi, had a patron saint, it would be Eudora Welty.

Miss Eudora, as native Jacksonites affectionately call her, was a fixture in the capital city of Mississippi from her childhood until her death in 2001. Her presence is still inescapable. Visit the Mayflower Café, off Capitol Street, and you’ll hear about Miss Eudora’s fondness for plate lunches of fried catfish and butter beans. Dig through the waist-high volumes at Choctaw Books and, with luck, you can come across a volume signed in Welty’s bunched and looping hand. Ask an alumnus of Belhaven University about Welty, and they’ll tell you how she used to keep the window of her bedroom open to listen to the music department practice, her head just visible in the top floor window as she sat at her typewriter

Author’s homes on public display tend to have a stuffy quality, all velvet ropes and militantly made beds. The assiduousness of the preservation drains the life from them, makes them seem impossibly antique. Welty’s house, a Tudor-style revival tucked into a thicket of pines, is almost unbearably welcoming. Visiting feels like an intrusion on her privacy. The rooms are littered with paintings and clever bric-a-brac—a gaudy bust of Shakespeare on the mantel, a gold heart-shaped box inscribed with “The Ponder Heart” on a living room table. Her many accolades are nowhere in sight, removed from the house and put in a small museum adjacent, since Welty had a habit of keeping them in a cardboard box tucked in the upstairs closet. Piles of books cram into shelves in almost every room and teeter in piles on most surfaces: dictionaries, collections of Greek myths, novels by Wodehouse, Thurber, O’Connor, and Pritchett. Her nieces used to complain that when they visited Eudora, they had to move a stack of books just to sit down.

Stepping into Welty’s house feels less like entering another person’s home than like dropping into one of her stories. Critics of Welty’s writing often quibble with her penchant toward the atmospheric and the regional, concentrating on the relatively narrow scope of social life in the Deep South. (In 1943, Diana Trilling gave Delta Wedding a withering review in The Nation, describing the novel as a book in which “nothing happens” written in language that stands “on tiptoe.”)

But Welty is not a regional writer—her purview is much smaller than that. Her writing is bound up in the romance of everyday objects, in the vagaries of memory and how they become tied to a place, a room, a piece of furniture, or a trinket. Proust had his madeleine, but Welty had pralines. In her house, certain objects give you literary déjà vu. There is the desk from The Optimist’s Daughter in her bedroom, every slot filled with letters. There are the volumes of Dickens from One Writer’s Beginnings, mud-spattered from when her mother threw them out of the window to save them from a fire. It is disorienting to see these objects outside of the page. Life intertwines with fiction for most writers, but it’s rare to be able to point to the exact intersection.

Nowhere is the overlap more obvious than in the sprawling back garden. Welty’s mother, Chestina, designed and planted the garden when the family moved into the house in the 1920s. After Eudora returned to Jackson from New York to care for her dying father, she spent most of her life weeding and watering with her mother, browsing through seed catalogues and bulb bulletins, trekking through the swamp with a bottle of snake-venom antidote at her hip to find specimens for archipelagos of flowerbeds and planters. When her night-blooming cereus plant (“a naked, luminous, complicated flower,” she wrote inThe Golden Apples) began hinting at exposing its fragile white buds each year, Welty would throw parties that would last from dusk until dawn in its honor. Her letters to friends tracked time by what was in bloom, what plants she could see from the window of the breakfast nook. “The sight of the garden and its scent!” Welty wrote in a section she edited from One Writer’s Beginning. “If work hasn’t proved it real, it would have been hallucination; in this sense gardening is akin to writing stories. No experience could have taught me more about grief or flowers, about achieving survival by going, young fingers in the ground, the limit of physical exhaustion.” For Welty, gardening was the process that helped distill the imaginative jumble in her head into stories. It was in the garden, Welty wrote in her papers, that she first “set myself at a storyteller’s remove.”

By the nineties, the magnificent garden had fallen into disrepair, Chestina long gone and Welty too consumed with other activities to preserve it. Before Welty died, she authorized the state of Mississippi, led by preservationist and gardener Susan Haltom, to restore the garden to its former glory. The work, which Haltom documented with writer Jane Roy Brown and photographer Langdon Clay in the book One Writer’s Garden, was painstaking.

The main guidelines for the restoration team were passages from Welty’s letters and fiction. The result is a multiroomed affair, a map of larkspurs, Johnny-jump-ups, roses, verbena, Russian sage, and daylilies corralled into islands and fjords. Walking through, Welty’s descriptions ring in your head. There is the althea bush like the one in Losing Battles, full of flowers “pink as children’s faces.” There is the Silver Moon plant the yard boy attends to in “A Curtain of Green.” The tiny agonies and triumphs that are the sustenance of Welty’s work are all entangled in nature.

The first time I visited Eudora Welty’s garden was shortly after my parents moved to Jackson, while I was in college. I had been abroad in India the whole summer as they had boxed up my childhood home in Birmingham, shipped the possessions four hours south and west into the sleepy expanse of Mississippi. When I arrived at their new house, I felt disoriented: Jackson was like Birmingham in many ways, but smudged somehow, the drawl a little deeper and the backyard clay tinged yellow instead of red. I concerned myself with rearranging familiar books on foreign shelves, taking short trips around the town to see the old capitol building, the fairgrounds, the local bookstore where a bust of Welty sits festooned with mardi gras beads.

When I got to the Welty house, one August twilight, the last tour had already gone through. I peered through the windows and looked at the brick porch, hesitating only slightly before slipping through the side trellis into the garden. The sweltering heat had died down, but the buzz of mosquitos hung heavily in the air. I sat on a stone bench and breathed the soupy air, the humid perfume from the clumps of purple, gold, and red flowers. Something about the garden was welcoming and quiet. It made the whole of the town make a little more sense and settle in my mind. It wasn’t until later, reading through Welty’s work, that I realized quite why. “One place understood,” Welty wrote, “helps us understand all places better.”

Margaret Eby is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn.

Christopher Hitchens on Mortality

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“To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?”

“One should try to write as if posthumously,”Christopher Hitchens (April 13, 1949–December 15, 2011) famously opined in a New York Public Library talk three days before his fatal cancer diagnosis. “Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others,” he advised young contrarians years earlier. How striking, then, becomes the clash between his uncompromising ethos and the equally uncompromising realities of death, recorded inMortality (public library), his last published work, out this week — a gripping and lucid meditation on death as it was unfolding during Hitch’s last months of life. But what makes the book truly extraordinary is his profound oscillation between his characteristic, proud, almost stubborn self-awareness — that ability to look on with the eye of the critic rather than the experiencing self — and a vulnerability that is so clearly foreign to him, yet so breathlessly inevitable in dying. The ideological rigor with which he approaches his own finality, teasing apart religion and politics and other collective and thus impersonal facets of culture, cracks here and there, subtly at first, letting the discomfort of his brush with the unknown peek through, then gapes wide open to reveal the sheer human terror of ceasing to exist.

We begin by seeing Hitchens, a true contrarian himself, defy death’s common psychology:

The notorious stage theory of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, whereby one progresses from denial to rage through bargaining to depression and the eventual bliss of ‘acceptance,’ hasn’t so far had much application to my case. In one way, I suppose, I have been ‘in denial’ for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light. But for precisely that reason, I can’t see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it’s all so unfair: I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me. Rage would be beside the point for the same reason. Instead, I am badly oppressed by the gnawing sense of waste. I had real plans for my next decade and felt I’d worked hard enough to earn it. Will I really not live to see my children married? To watch the World Trade Center rise again? To read — if not indeed to write — the obituaries of elderly villains like Henry Kissinger and Joseph Ratzinger? But I understand this sort of non-thinking for what it is: sentimentality and self-pity.

One coping mechanism is stoic wryness:

To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?

As a bastion of semantic clarity, Hitch doesn’t miss the opportunity to dismember a number of the metaphors we use about and around death, echoingSusan Sontag’s classic and revolutionary Illness as Metaphor in discussing the “war-on-cancer” cliché:

Myself, I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient. Allow me to inform you, though, that when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.

Still, Hitchens uses his death as a vehicle for advancing his lifelong crusade against religion, which earned him a spot as one of “the Four Horsemen of New Atheism” — along with Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and Sam Harris — and takes a number of clever stabs at religion’s paradoxes:

Many readers are familiar with the spirit and the letter of the definition of ‘prayer,’ as given by Ambrose Bierce in his Devil’s Dictionary. It runs like this, and is extremely easy to comprehend:

Prayer: A petition that the laws of nature be suspended in favor of the petitioner; himself confessedly unworthy.

Everybody can see the joke that is lodged within this entry: The man who prays is the one who thinks that god has arranged matters all wrong, but who also thinks that he can instruct god how to put them right. Half-buried in the contradiction is the distressing idea that nobody is in charge, or nobody with any moral authority. The call to prayer is self-cancelling.

But, every once in a while, between the busting of clichés, the complacent edge of his self-awareness softens and gives way to the real and raw human terror of his experience:

It’s normally agreed that the question ‘How are you?’ doesn’t put you on your oath to give a full or honest answer. So when asked these days, I tend to say something cryptic like, ‘A bit early to say.’ (If it’s the wonderful staff at my oncology clinic who inquire, I sometimes go so far as to respond, ‘I seem to have cancer today.’) Nobody wants to be told about the countless minor horrors and humiliations that become facts of ‘life’ when your body turns from being a friend to being a foe: the boring switch from chronic constipation to its sudden dramatic opposite; the equally nasty double cross of feeling acute hunger while fearing even the scent of food; the absolute misery of gut-wringing nausea on an utterly empty stomach; or the pathetic discovery that hair loss extends to the disappearance of the follicles in your nostrils, and thus to the childish and irritating phenomenon of a permanently runny nose. Sorry, but you did ask… It’s no fun to appreciate to the full the truth of the materialist proposition that I don’thave a body, I am a body.

Indeed, this daily attrition of bodily dignity, which bleeds into an attrition of character, is hard even for Hitch to intellectualize, try as he might:

Most despond-inducing and alarming of all, so far, was the moment when my voice suddenly rose to a childish (or perhaps piglet-like) piping squeak. It then began to register all over the place, from a gruff and husky whisper to a papery, plaintive bleat. And at times it threatened, and now threatens daily, to disappear altogether. I had just returned from giving a couple of speeches in California, where with the help of morphine and adrenaline I could still successfully ‘project’ my utterances, when I made an attempt to hail a taxi outside my home — and nothing happened. I stood, frozen, like a silly cat that had abruptly lost its meow. I used to be able to stop a New York cab at thirty paces. I could also, without the help of a microphone, reach the back row and gallery of a crowded debating hall. And it may be nothing to boast about, but people tell me that if their radio or television was on, even in the next room, they could always pick out my tones and know that I was ‘on’ too.

Like health itself, the loss of such a thing can’t be imagined until it occurs. In common with everybody else, I have played versions of the youthful ‘Which would you rather?’ game, in which most usually it’s debated whether blindness or deafness would be the most oppressive. But I don’t ever recall speculating much about being struck dumb. (In the American vernacular, to say ‘I’d really hate to be dumb’ might in any case draw another snicker.) Deprivation of the ability to speak is more like an attack of impotence, or the amputation of part of the personality. To a great degree, in public and private, I ‘was’ my voice. All the rituals and etiquette of conversation, from clearing the throat in preparation for the telling of an extremely long and taxing joke to (in younger days) trying to make my proposals more persuasive as I sank the tone by a strategic octave of shame, were innate and essential to me. I have never been able to sing, but I could once recite poetry and quote prose and was sometimes even asked to do so. And timing is everything: the exquisite moment when one can break in and cap a story, or turn a line for a laugh, or ridicule an opponent. I lived for moments like that. Now if I want to enter a conversation, I have to attract attention in some other way, and live with the awful fact that people are then listening ‘sympathetically.’

The final pages of Mortality feature Hitch’s fragmentary scribbles from the days immediately preceding his death, concluding, poignantly, with this:

From Alan Lightman’s intricate 1993 novel Einstein’s Dreams; set in Berne in 1905:

With infinite life comes an infinite list of relatives. Grandparents never die, nor do great-grandparents, great-aunts… and so on, back through the generations, all alive and offering advice. Sons never escape from the shadows of their fathers. Nor do daughters of their mothers. No one ever comes into his own… Such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free.

The Radical Vision of Toni Morrison

At 84, she sits comfortably as one of the greatest authors in American history, even as her uncompromising dream for black literature seems farther away than ever.

By RACHEL KAADZI GHANSAH

Not too long ago, Toni Morrison sat in the small kitchen attached to the studio where she was recording the audiobook for her newest novel, “God Help the Child,” telling a roomful of strangers stories that I will never forget. The studio, a small, refurbished barn in Katonah, N.Y., was more than a hundred years old, but only a few rustic touches remained, like a sliding barn door and knotty pine floors. A solid kitchen table had been laid with fresh fruits, muffins and tins of jam. Beams of sunlight reflected off the blindingly white snow outside the glass window. A young woman from Random House kept mentioning her sunglasses, how it was bright enough to wear them inside. Everyone giggled at her nervous chatter, but they seemed to be mostly laughing at her brave attempt to make small talk in the presence of Toni Morrison.

The only person not bothered by the glare and the room’s awkward giddiness was Morrison herself, who sat at the head of the table, in a thin, black linen caftan, a wool beret and with a sizable diamond ring on one hand. Morrison wears her age like an Elizabethan regent or a descendant of Othello via Lorain, Ohio. Long before we met, I read that she could be impervious at times, coquettish at others. What was evident that day in Katonah was that had she so much as lifted a finger, every person in the room — the studio’s director and his engineer, her P.R. person from Knopf, her publisher and two young women from the audiobooks division of Random House — would have stopped what they were doing to ask if they could assist. Not because she required it, but because the unspoken consensus was that the person who produced the 11 novels that Morrison has written, the person those books came out of, was deserving of the fuss.

It takes a long time to record a book. Many authors use actors. But that’s not how Morrison hears her own sentences, so she does these tedious sessions herself. That day, she would go into a narrow, low-lit booth, carrying a small pillow for her back, sit down and read from her new book for hours. We followed along in the control room, listening to her barely-a-whisper voice read from a chapter called “Sweetness”: “It’s not my fault. So you can’t blame me. I didn’t do it and have no idea how it happened.”

The hours went by. “Toni,” the director said at one point through his microphone, “can you do that sentence over? Can you pronounce ‘tangerine’ with more emphasis on the ‘rine?’ ” Sometimes her voice dipped down too low to be heard. “Toni,” he would say, “let’s do that part over again.”

It was a long day. Some people can’t do it, can’t sit in that dimly lit sarcophagus-like space and read. Others who have recorded there have kept the door open because the booth was too confining. But Morrison was in absolute calm, as if this dark space and her own words were a nest of language and she was perfectly at home. Because of how she was positioned, I couldn’t see her; I could hear only her voice. Purring and soft. Dulcet. A faint noise coming from within the darkness.

During her breaks, Morrison would take her place at the table, and within minutes she was surrounded. Did she want the heater closer? Did she want tea? As a defense against our smothering neediness, she tried to preserve herself, the private person inside the author, by telling us stories. My mention of New Orleans prompted her to tell a tale that she heard from a friend that must be passed along. It goes like this: There was once a man who lived in New Orleans. A city that is like no other place in this country. Now, this man’s name was Big Lunch, and folks called him that because he was known for always coming around midday and asking for whatever food people had to spare. He put that food in his pockets, in his coat, in his pants, and when that food went bad, he didn’t mind. You could smell this man coming around even when he was blocks away because he never bathed. And of course, over time all that food and dirt began to crust and that crust caked over his skin. Somehow or other, Big Lunch got into an accident, and when they got him to the hospital, they washed him. They washed all of his dirt and crust off. All of it. But as days passed, instead of getting better, Big Lunch began to get sicker, sicker, until finally one day he took his last breath and died. “Because,” she said, looking intently at me with a smile that had nothing to do with anything funny, “those people didn’t know that all of that crust was what had been keeping him alive.”

Morrison is a woman of guardrails and many boundaries; she keeps them up in order to do the work. The work “protects,” she told me. “It’s a serious protection: emotionally, even intellectually, from the world.” Journalists from Europe and elsewhere call these days, one after the other, and they try to be coy, but she can tell what they really want to know. “They are just calling to see when I’m going to die.” She laughed and said: “So I’ll play it up a bit and say, ‘Oh, today my arms hurt, my chest is sore.’ Because, me? I’m not going anywhere soon.”

She wasn’t too interested in her 84th birthday, she said, until President Obama’s office called the other day to plan a lunch. When she told us this, oohs and aahs went around the room. Someone asked her where she was going to have it. “Huh,” she said, as if this were the silliest question ever posed. “At their house! At the White House!” Of course. “Well, actually, it isn’t a lunch; it is a dinner, and they said, ‘Now, Toni, this will be very informal, don’t put yourself out, you can even wear jeans if you like.’ ” She paused and shook her head slightly, saying to no one in particular: “Jeans! I’ve never worn jeans in my life, and I’m certainly not going to wear them to the White House. I mean.” Then she sighed. As if she couldn’t even explain it all to us, because we wouldn’t get it. Like we wouldn’t get how far she had come.

In 1984, Morrison was a single mother and a novelist with four books to her name, three of which — “The Bluest Eye,” “Sula” and “Song of Solomon” — are now considered classics. She had recently stopped working as an editor at Random House and published the essay “Rootedness: The Ancestor as Foundation” in an anthology. The essay in many ways articulated the terms that would define her writing. She noted that the novel “has always functioned for the class or the group that wrote it.” The novel that concerned itself with black Americans was remarkable and needed, she wrote, because it accomplished “certain very strong functions,” now that “we don’t live in places where we can hear those stories anymore” and “parents don’t sit around and tell their children those classical, mythological archetypal stories that we heard years ago.” The black novel was important because it could “suggest what the conflicts are, what the problems are,” not necessarily as a means of solving them but as a way of recording and reflecting them.

For years, dozens upon dozens of prominent black writers — people like Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou, Jayne Cortez, Nikki Giovanni and John Edgar Wideman — were in orbit with one another. Some of these black writers had no formal affiliations, but many others organized themselves under efforts like Baraka’s Black Arts Movement, where they could share the duty of not only making art but also writing themselves into the world. They were not just producing poems, plays and novels, they were also considering the obligations of their specific genre — black literature — and its defining aspects and distinct functions. We no longer connect Morrison to that earlier, loosely defined constellation of black writing, but she was there, and she was there long before she was a novelist. During the years that she worked at Random House, she published books by Muhammad Ali, Henry Dumas, Angela Davis, Huey P. Newton, Toni Cade Bambara and Gayl Jones, whom she discovered in the 1970s. Jones’s manuscript was so impressive that when Morrison read it for the first time, uppermost in her mind, she once wrote, was “that no novel about any black woman could ever be the same after this.” It was Morrison who helped promote Ali’s book and who once hired members of the Fruit of Islam to work security for him. She also reviewed a biography of Angela Davis for The New York Times in 1972, slamming the author for being “another simpatico white girl who felt she was privy to the secret of how black revolutionaries got that way.”

And when the poet Henry Dumas went to his death, the way so many black boys and men do, it was Morrison, who never had a chance to meet him and published his work posthumously, who sent around a book-party announcement that was part invitation, part consolation, which read: “In 1968, a young black man, Henry Dumas, went through a turnstile at a New York City subway station. A transit cop shot him in the chest and killed him. Circumstances surrounding his death remain unclear. Before that happened, however, he had written some of the most beautiful, moving and profound poetry and fiction that I have ever in my life read.”

Two years after Dumas’s death, Morrison published her first novel, at 39. In many ways, she had prepared the world for her voice and heralded her arrival with her own editorial work. And yet the story of Pecola Breedlove, a broken black girl who wants blue eyes, was a novel that no one saw coming. Morrison relished unexpectedness. The first edition of “The Bluest Eye” starts Pecola’s story on the cover: “Quiet as it’s kept, there were no marigolds in the fall of 1941. We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow.”

Morrison’s work, since she published that first novel, has always delivered a heavy load. Her books are populated by both history and the people who are left out of history: a jealous, mentally ill hairdresser with a sharp knife (“Jazz,” 1992); a man who as a child suckled at his mother’s breast until those in the community found it odd (“Song of Solomon,” 1977); an enslaved woman, who would rather slice her own daughter’s neck than let captivity happen to her (“Beloved,” 1987); and a destitute little girl, belly swollen with her father’s child, holding a Shirley Temple cup, desperate to have Temple’s bright blue eyes (“The Bluest Eye,” 1970).

On one level, Morrison’s project is obvious: It is a history that stretches across 11 novels and just as many geographies and eras to tell a story that is hardly chronological but is thematically chained and somewhat continuous. This is the project most readily understood and accepted by even her least generous critics. But then there is the other mission, the less obvious one, the one in which Morrison often does the unthinkable as a minority, as a woman, as a former member of the working class: She democratically opens the door to all of her books only to say, “You can come in and you can sit, and you can tell me what you think, and I’m glad you are here, but you should know that this house isn’t built for you or by you.” Here, blackness isn’t a commodity; it isn’t inherently political; it is the race of a people who are varied and complicated. This is where her works become less of a history and more of a liturgy, still stretching across geographies and time, but now more pointedly, to capture and historicize: This is how we pray, this is how we escape, this is how we hurt, this is how we repent, this is how we move on. It is a project that, although ignored by many critics, evidences itself on the page. It has allowed Morrison to play with language, to take chances with how stories unravel and to consistently resist the demand to create an empirical understanding of black life in America. Instead, she makes black life — regular, quotidian black life, the kind that doesn’t sell out concert halls or sports stadiums — complex, fantastic and heroic, despite its devaluation. It is both aphorism and beyond aphorism, and a result has been pure possibility.

Often, in black literature, it seems as though the author is performing two roles: that of the explorer and the explainer. Morrison does not do this. Morrison writes stories that are more aesthetic than overtly political, better expressed in accurate Tolstoyan detail than in generalizing sentiments blunted with anger. Most important, she is an author who writes to tease and complicate her world, not to convince others it is valid.

“What I’m interested in is writing without the gaze, without the white gaze,” she told me. “In so many earlier books by African-American writers, particularly the men, I felt that they were not writing to me. But what interested me was the African-American experience throughout whichever time I spoke of. It was always about African-American culture and people — good, bad, indifferent, whatever — but that was, for me, the universe.”

In 1842, Charles Dickens, at the time one of the greatest authors writing in English, took a steamboat trip across Lake Erie. He was most excited to see Niagara Falls. While waiting for the boat in Sandusky, Ohio, he lamented that he wanted to be getting along with his trip and was apparently uninterested in passing through the next town, Vermilion, or seeing the small curve of land that would one day be Morrison’s birthplace, Lorain. Dickens concluded that “their demeanor in these country parts is invariably morose, sullen, clownish and repulsive. I should think there is not, on the face of the earth, a people so destitute of humor, vivacity or the capacity of enjoyment. It is most remarkable. I am quite serious when I say that I have not heard a hearty laugh these six weeks, except my own; nor have I seen a merry face on any shoulders but a black man’s.”

When I first read this, I wondered for days who this merry black man was who was so remarkably different from the other Ohioans that Dickens encountered. Did this merry man know his difference warranted a mention from Dickens himself? Did this merry man read? At the time of Dickens’s visit, 19 years before the Civil War, there were laws that prohibited black enslaved people from being taught to read or write. Was it even possible for Dickens to imagine that within a leap of a hundred years a girl would be born there who would become one the few people who could relate to his lofty position as one of the greatest writers ever to live? We will never know the thoughts of this particular merry man, but his appearance in Dicken’s travelogue almost presages the novels of Morrison, novels that have ensured that lives like his are no longer merely passing mentions in another man’s notes.

She wasn’t born Toni Morrison. She had to become that person. She was born Chloe Wofford in 1931. Her parents, Ramah and George Wofford, were Southerners who came to Ohio at the beginning of the 20th century. She grew up hearing about how her mother’s father, John Solomon Willis, a violinist, often had to leave his wife and family behind on a farm in Greenville, Ala., to go to Birmingham to make money. Morrison recalled that her grandmother, Ardelia Willis, realized as the months passed that the white boys in the area were “circling,” meaning her girls were getting toward that age. And when she saw white boys out in the yard, she knew what was up. This image and her grandmother’s way of speech have stayed with her: “I like the way she said ‘circling,’ ” Morrison told me. After sending a message to her husband that they could no longer stay put, Morrison’s grandmother took her children in the dead of the night and got on the first train they could find that would take them away.

When Morrison’s father was 14 or 15, two black businessmen who lived on his street were lynched in succession, and afterward, he left the South and by a circuitous route headed to Ohio. Morrison said: “He never told us that he’d seen bodies. But he had seen them. And that was too traumatic, I think, for him.”

One of the most important things she remembers about her father, she told me, is “how much he hated white people. Once I saw him throw a white man down the stairs, because he thought he was coming — I think the guy was drunk — but still he was coming up the stairs, and my father thought he was after his girls, so he picked him up and threw him down the stairs and threw our tricycle after him.” She wrote about this incident in an essay for this magazine in 1976, and concluded that even though she was very small when she witnessed it, it taught her something key: “that my father could win” and “that it was possible to win.”

But Morrison didn’t grow up, she said, “with that particular kind of alarm or fear or distrust of white people, personally.” She described Lorain as a place where “immigrants were everywhere, Italians and Polish people and Jewish people and black people. Some of them came down from Canada. So I never lived in a black neighborhood, and the schools were mixed, and there was one high school. And also we played together.”

The Woffords were not well off. They just worked hard. There was a railroad that ran through Lorain, and when she was little, her father used to take her and her sister, Lois, out to collect fallen bits of coal as the train trembled by. I didn’t tell her that when I once drove through Lorain, with the big sky looking, as she once wrote, “carnival” over the flat, Midwestern expanse, it seemed like a place perfect for an imaginative child — a keen observer, a relentless reader whose mind was full of her mother’s ghost stories, visions of Russian dachas from Tolstoy, and Moorish princes from Shakespeare and poor-orphan fairy tales from Dickens — to come up with characters of her own.

Life in Lorain taught Morrison a few things that were to set her apart when she went off to Washington, D.C., to study literature at Howard University. The first was that she never would be the sort of person who would be roped in by self-satisfied, self-segregating celebrations of blackness as something unimpeachable. Morrison was raised to compete on broader stages, with people from all walks of life, and she wasn’t used to thinking of white people as the estranged other. At Howard, she wanted to write a term paper on the role of black people in Shakespeare, but her professor thought it was “low-class” to read and research black life. It also made her uneasy and deeply disappointed that at Howard, skin color worked as a caste system. This was something she had only read about, and she found it off-putting and silly. But in Washington, she also encountered for the first time lunch counters she could not sit at, fountains she could not drink from and stores where her money was simply no good. The confines of the campus acted as a space of blessed comfort. She simply could not take segregation seriously. “I think it’s a theatrical thing,” she told me. “I always felt that everything else was the theater. They didn’t really mean that. How could they? It was too stupid.”

After college and graduate school at Cornell, Morrison eventually returned to Howard to teach. She married. She had a son, and then while she was months into her second pregnancy, her marriage fell apart. She decided to go back to Lorain to figure out what would come next. In the back pages of The New York Review of Books, she saw an editing position at the textbook division of Random House. She applied and got the job. With two young sons, Morrison moved to Syracuse and started to work in the completely foreign industry of editors, agents and writers.

The perplexing but wonderful thing about Morrison’s career is just how much her prominence was created not by the mainstream publishing world, but by Morrison herself, on her own terms, in spite of it. The French literary theorist Pascale Casanova suggests in her book “The World Republic of Letters” that all literature is a kind of a cultural battleground where dominant forces routinely crush the stories of those who are the underdog. “Literary space is not an immutable structure, fixed once and for all in its hierarchies and power relations,” Casanova writes, adding that “even if the unequal distribution of literary resources assures that such forms of domination will endure, it is also a source of incessant struggle of challenges to authority and legitimacy, of rebellions, insubordination and, ultimately, revolutions that alter the balance of literary power and rearrange existing hierarchies.”

In 1988, a collective of 48 black writers and intellectuals published and signed a statement in The New York Times, upbraiding the publishing industry for its “oversight and harmful whimsy” toward Morrison and James Baldwin. “Despite the international stature of Toni Morrison, she has yet to receive the national recognition that her five major works of fiction entirely deserve: She has yet to receive the keystone honors of the National Book Award or the Pulitzer Prize,” they wrote. “It is a fact that James Baldwin, celebrated worldwide and posthumously designated as ‘immortal’ and as ‘the conscience of his generation,’ never received the honor of these keystones to the canon of American literature.” “Beloved,” they said, was Morrison’s most recent gift to our community, our country and our national conscience. They refused to stand by as it was snubbed by the National Book Awards. “Beloved,” they felt, had finally given expression to “a universe of complicated, sweetly desiring, fierce and deeply seductive human beings hitherto subsumed by, hitherto stifled by, that impenetrable nobody-noun: ‘the slave.’ ”

Two months later, Morrison was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. A few years after that, she won the Nobel Prize. She is still, 20 years later, the only living American laureate for literature. The last time one was awarded to an American-born writer was in 1962 to John Steinbeck. And yet in their act of defiance, these 48 black letter writers had observed a truth that the fact of Morrison’s awards cannot alter: that they were working within a culture that fundamentally wasn’t interested in them and they therefore had recognized what the establishment at large had refused to; that, now and then, writers of color must struggle to merely tread water in a sea of what another Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Junot Díaz, described to me as “the unbearable whiteness” of American literature.

This is a problem even for Morrison. She is often discussed in terms of her audience, the older black women who fan themselves with her book covers at her readings, the teenage girls who sigh on buses and trains while reading “Sula” for class, the young male rappers who have interpolated lines from “The Bluest Eye” into their songs. It is this audience that her critics dismiss derisively, suggesting that Morrison panders to them, with long, poetic sentences and stories about broken black women. It is also true that a sizable portion of her audience simply looks like her, in a world where black Americans, and people of color in general, are still perceived to be nonreaders. But of course Morrison, rather than feeling marginalized or slighted by that criticism, takes delight in it. In an interview for The Paris Review, she said: “I would like to write novels that were unmistakably mine but nevertheless fit first into African-American traditions and, second of all, this whole thing called literature.” She added: “It’s very important to me that my work be African-American. If it assimilates into a different or larger pool, so much the better. But I shouldn’t be asked to do that. Joyce is not asked to do that. Tolstoy is not. I mean, they can all be Russian, French, Irish or Catholic, they write out of where they come from, and I do too.” It is a reply that stumps her interviewer. First African-American, she asks her, as if Morrison had stuttered. Yes, Morrison replies. Rather than the whole of literature she asks. “Oh, yes,” Morrison replies.

This was a radical idea. Morrison wanted to not only broaden the tastes of the industry, she also wanted to change the fate of a literary culture that had to either diversify or die. She told me that the books she edited and wrote were her contribution to the civil rights movement. By publishing black geniuses, she was also forcing the ranks of the big publishing houses and the industry to become more hospitable to her point of view, to the idea that a black writer could write for a black audience first and still write literature. She was more humanist than nationalistic, more visionary than didactic, but to some extent her editorial work was political. “We don’t need any more writers as solitary heroes,” Morrison said in her 1981 keynote address at the American Writers Congress. “We need a heroic writer’s movement: assertive, militant, pugnacious.”

What we know now is that the inclusive, empowered revolution that Morrison raised a battle cry for has failed to come to pass. Over the last decade or so, a righteous assault on the hegemony that exists in American literature has come to the fore. Suddenly, the old guard’s oft-repeated line that people of color don’t read, that they don’t submit, that their work isn’t up to snuff was being widely and publicly debunked by workshops run by programs like Kimbilio, Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation and the Asian-American Writers’ Workshop. But what has remained more elusive is the part that Morrison figured out as an editor: What happens after the workshop and the head count? How do people change an establishment? How do people change an industry?

Morrison serves as a totem for so much of this energy. It is not just that her writing is singular; her efforts to change the lay of the land have also been singular. Junot Díaz recalled to me that seeing Toni Morrison on the cover of Time was revelatory for him as a young writer for this exact reason. “At that moment,” he said, “you could feel the demographic shift, you could feel in the ’90s what the future was going to be and when you look at the literary world now, and it’s almost like that future was never realized. The literary world has tripled down on its whiteness.” When I asked him to explain, he said: “Well, if you think about what the colors and faces and the backgrounds of our young people are in all of our public schools, and then you look at the writers who this society valorizes, the disconnect is intergalactic. It’s almost as if they saw the future in the Time cover and said, ‘Well, we’ve got to make sure to get Franzen on the cover as a prayer against, or an attempt to exorcise, that imminent future.’ ”

Later, at home, after having spent time with Morrison and rereading “Beloved” and “God Help the Child” back to back, an embarrassing thing happened to me: I felt a knot in my throat that then became heavy sadness. My tears disabled me, and I found them inscrutable. Something hurt. Slowly I recognized what was behind my crying: fear and worry. I was worried about what will happen to the stories. For decades Morrison has reflected back to us what it’s meant to be on the other side of this country’s approved history. When young white men again sing songs about lynching black men without being able recall who taught them those songs, and the hateful origins of the N-word are erased by a convenient amnesia to allow its constant use by outsiders, who will tell the stories we don’t tell ourselves? When we still have to assert that we matter, when African-Americans represent an estimated 1 percent of those working at the big publishing houses, when women and writers of color have to track how seldom they are given chances to tell their stories and when the publishing industry fails to support or encourage this generation’s writers of color in any real or meaningful way, a dangerous reality is possible. What will happen to the next generation of authors who are writing from the margins?

The lobby of Random House is full of old books displayed inside towering glass cases. There is a worn cookbook by Escoffier; “No Exit,” by Sartre; “Moby-Dick,” by Melville; “Invisible Man,” by Ralph Ellison. Prominently centered is an early edition of “Song of Solomon,” by Morrison. I had come to see Chris Jackson, the executive editor at Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, and one of the roughly five or six black senior editors in America with a position at a major publishing company.

Jackson’s office is full of books by the authors he has published: Victor LaValle’s acclaimed novels, Mat Johnson’s “Pym,” Eddie Huang’s “Fresh Off the Boat” and Bryan Stevenson’s “Just Mercy.” Jackson is in his mid-40s, wears glasses with clear plastic frames and has a graying beard. He has the contemplative look of a person who has spent most of his life reading. His desk is cluttered with magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic, marked drafts and a picture of his young son. Above his desk, I spied two copies of “The Black Book,” an anthology edited by Morrison and published in 1974 that was an iconoclastic, archival look at black life in America. Among all the books that Morrison championed and shepherded at Random House, “The Black Book” stands out as a strange and singular creation and one that vividly captures her notion of writing and publishing from within the black experience, without the white gaze. It is a book that works almost like a scrapbook of black life in America: a collection of photographs, illustrations, and essays. It contains quotes from the poet Henry Dumas and cartoons of sambos carrying watermelons, along with pictures of pretty black centerfolds and stories about runaways who made their break for freedom and found it.

I asked Jackson if he thought that “The Black Book” opened the parameters of people’s perception of what black literature would look like at Random House. He paused. “It’s hard to say, because I can’t speak authoritatively on the publishing scene in the 1970s,” he said. “But I think that at that time there weren’t, and today there aren’t, a lot of black editors. Editors were looking for black literature that felt like a commentary on black life, and she was doing books that were about the kind of internal experience of being black, just like the books she writes are.” He added, “I think white editors at that time, and even today, are mostly looking for black writers working in whatever mode happens to be selling at the time; either that, or writers who were writing out of protest,” he said.

As he spoke, I flipped through his first-edition copy of “The Black Book,” because I had never seen it before. He noticed my distraction and said: “ ‘The Black Book’ is not exactly a celebration of black life. It is a gathering together of artifacts. It’s a sort of way of witnessing black life, but, again, it does feel like it’s coming from the perspective within the black community. It’s not like an anthropological book at all. It’s almost a family history in a way. Again, I think that points to the difference in her perspective.”

Jackson is a diplomatic person, and I could see him thinking when I asked him about the biases of the industry. For example, how when Morrison became the first black woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993, there were those who asked if she deserved the award. “The literary community is not free of the prejudices of larger society, to put it nicely,” he said. “In some ways, it’s less representative of the racial diversity of America than almost any industry I know. I feel like black literature, black art, has always been put in a separate category. I think there’s always been a lot of surprising and enduring lack of full respect in certain quarters about the fact that Toni Morrison, with ‘Beloved,’ wrote the best American novel published probably in my lifetime, and it was written about a subject that Americans don’t like to talk about or are incapable of talking about in a lot of ways.

“But I do think the resentment, part of it, is that the self-conscious literary establishment is a clubby kind of world where everyone is like, ‘Well, this is not the person who’s my person, who represents me,’ and the literary world in America is filled with people who are represented by white men or white women. I mean, there are almost no people in literature represented by a black woman, right?” Right, I said. Right.

It was still winter, but the day had spring undertones, a good deal of sun and now a pink evening sky that I could see through the slots of the skyscrapers. Across the way, I could see a dance class that was in session, a row of arms in flight. Yellow taxis scuttled down below like beetles. The building directly adjacent to his office seemed to be a hotel, and someone was turning down the sheets. It was one of those moments in which New York feels timeless.

Jackson walked me out to the elevator and for some reason, as I passed the row of offices, I began to self-consciously whisper. It was the end of the workday, and the elevator stopped on almost every floor. A tired, older woman with frizzy gray hair got on and smiled. A middle-aged man held the door for his co-worker. They all looked like nice people, bookish people, people I might know in the city. Two younger women got on, holding tote bags full of books, as most young people in this scene do. They smiled at me too. I did not feel any different from them or think twice about myself, until I got to the lobby, where I realized that the only black or Latino people I had seen that afternoon besides Jackson were the security guards in the lobby. Unless, that is, you counted Toni, Ralph and Maya peering down at me from those glass cases, immortalized in what seemed like a distant past.

The last afternoon I spent with Toni Morrison was at her loft in TriBeCa. It was one of the biggest apartments I have seen in the city. Large, evocative, abstract paintings by her deceased son, Slade, hung on most of the walls. There were built-in white bookcases that stretched up to the ceilings, and here and there were solid but elegantly carved pieces of antique furniture: a drafting table in the foyer, a long table for dining. Set among the plush tan, white and cream sofas and chairs was an oak coffee table. It was a steel-gray winter Monday morning, and through the windows, the bridges in the distance looked as if they were held up by land masses made of sleet and ice. Morrison sat smoking with one of her closest friends, a petite white woman named Eileen. I bummed a cigarette, and the three of us sat over coffee, our smoke spinning in the air, up toward the view of Lower Manhattan.

Because Morrison is read the world over, she is perceived to be a known quantity. She has an audience, she has awards. She is a black woman who writes about black people. Many people cling to her for this, but just as many think she has written herself into a literary ghetto. In 2008, the novelist Charles Johnson, author of “Middle Passage,” said, “I don’t want to say she’s beating a dead horse, but she probably feels more comfortable writing about that period as opposed to something more contemporary.” But he added, “I do think clearly that slavery-era stories and segregation-era stories are stories about the past.”

Admittedly, the contemporary still scares her, Morrison told me, with a slight shudder. It is a pace that she doesn’t quite understand. That said, the criticism that she only writes about the distant past no longer flies. “Love” and “God Help the Child” are each set in the 20th century. The new book is a fable-like novel about a well-to-do beauty executive, Bride, who lives in a modern-day California. In it, Morrison asks the reader to consider what happens to children who can’t forget the torment of an excruciatingly painful childhood. Bride has to connect to others and see past the ways she has busied herself pointlessly with other people’s baggage in lieu of becoming something of her own making. Even though Bride has capitalized off her blackness and her beauty, to become complete, she has to go much deeper and lose all of the symbols and the trappings.

The novel is an expression of all the ways that Morrison remains skeptical of quick fixes and easy answers. “Having been eliminated from the lists of urgent national priorities, from TV documentaries and the platitudes of editorials, black people have chosen, or been forced to seek, safety from the white man’s promise,” she wrote in the 1976 Times essay. “In the shambles of closing admissions, falling quotas, widening salary gaps and merging black-studies departments, builders and healers are quietly working among us.” That piece was written long ago, but Morrison still seems to be fighting for higher stakes, whether she admits it or not. She sees that my generation is ready to push back again, but she knows well that slogans don’t create change; she has written often about the emptiness of superficial reform and has said that “the killing of young black men has never changed all that much, with or without hoodies.”

In 1993, when Morrison received the Nobel, she told a folk tale that she has since told often. It is the story of an old female writer who is accosted by an angry mob of young people. Doubting her wisdom, they demand that she tell them something relevant. They ask her to tell them how to cope with being marginalized, while “having no home in this place. To be set adrift from the one you knew, to live at the edge of towns that cannot bear your company.”

Sitting in her apartment, I realized that every time we talked, I was just like one of those demanding young people. There was some part of me that wanted Morrison to play Moses and descend down the mountaintop and tell me what my generation should do next, how we might change these circumstances that we face. But for some reason Morrison would not to do this.

Which didn’t mean she wouldn’t speak her heart. She told me about the people she adores fiercely: her son, Harold Ford, and her granddaughters. And her sister, Lois, whose name she says like a prayer. (When I asked Morrison if she and Lois were close, I got an eye roll that was so sharp it chopped down the question and me. “My sister?” she finally said. “I need her.”) She told me about the unexpected thrills that can occur only late in one’s life, like changes in power that you never expected: Pope Francis, for example, or Michelle Obama. “Michelle,” she said with a smile that extended to places more important than just her face, “is one of the biggest brains in this country.”

“You think?” I asked her, not doubting her assessment but merely wanting a bit more. “Oh, I know,” she smiled, refusing to reveal a thing.

She marveled at the ways of being that people have let go of, that mystify her. When she found out that I had never slept on ironed sheets, her mouth hit the floor. “Do you make your bed every morning?” Rarely, I said. “Well, how do you get in it?” she asked. “I don’t know, I just straighten the duvet and get sort of comfortable in the tangle and climb in.” She groaned. I told her that my mother said there was nothing in the world like ironed sheets. “Your mother is right,” she said. “There is nothing in the world like ironed sheets.” She remembered a trip down South, when her host put her sheets out to dry on the jasmine bush — or was it a frangipani tree — and then ironed them. “Oh,” she said, inhaling deeply as if the sheets were still in her hands, “it was a sleep like no other. I’ve never had anything like it since.”

But when I asked her over and over what we could do to make sure our stories were not silenced, I didn’t get much. All she would tell me was that a good story is one that ends with what she called “the acquisition of knowledge.”

When I finally left Morrison’s apartment, she was about to get on the phone with Lois, to ask after her well being and her day in Lorain. Her sister had not been doing well, she was in the hospital, and I watched Morrison’s hands tremble as she took the call. Immediately I felt a deep shame. I had spent hours with Morrison, accosting her with questions, thinking about her, observing her, and yet for the first time I understood Morrison was a person with real human concerns. Suddenly I felt greedy and excused myself in a hurry. How silly of me to think that she should provide me with an answer to the old woman’s riddle, to not see all the ways Morrison has given of herself.

On my way out, she graciously said that I should call her if I had any more questions. And even though I later sent her clips of Kendrick Lamar through her assistant, because she got excited when I told her that his work reminded me of Joyce’s “Dubliners” but set in Compton, I never spoke to Morrison again.

From time to time though, I still think about her. Usually, what comes to mind during those moments is her last book, “Home.” In it, Morrison cemented the fact that her interest in history and looking back has hardly been a vain, nostalgic project. Instead, she mined what came before so it could be applied to the present, applied, perhaps, to the person who feels diminished or the readers who need to be reminded that they cannot easily turn their back on this country’s inherited history, and those who are not like them. “Who told you you was trash?” the old women of Lotus, Ga., asks the protagonist in “Home.” This is a question not just for her character but for anyone who has been listening to Morrison’s entire unforgettable liturgy: Who told you? And why did you believe?

Jacob Lawrence’s Great Migration series on view at MoMA

By Ula Ilnytzky Associated Press

Click photo to enlarge

This photo provided by the Museum of Modern Art courtesy of The Phillips Collection,… (AP)

NEW YORK (AP) — One hundred years ago, African-Americans began a mass exodus from the rural South, heading north in search of economic opportunity and social equality. The Museum of Modern Art is paying tribute to that movement in a rare exhibition of a series chronicling the phenomenon from artist Jacob Lawrence, himself the son of migrants.

His Great Migration series, featuring 60 poignant narrative paintings, is the centerpiece of the exhibition that runs through Sept. 7.

Lawrence, who died in 2000, was only 23 when he completed the works in 1941. The small tempera paintings depict various scenes of the multi-decade mass movement that began in 1915. Executed in bold colors, they portray scenes of life and death, work, home and hardships for the millions of African Americans who relocated North in pursuit of a better future.

The year they were finished, the paintings were exhibited at the Downtown Gallery in Manhattan, marking the first time a black artist was represented by a New York gallery. Soon after, they entered the collections of MoMA and The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., with each acquiring half.

The exhibition, “One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North,” is the first time the entire series is on view at MoMA in 20 years. Phillips showed all 60 panels in 2008.

To put the paintings in historical context, the exhibition also includes video and audio recordings of performances by Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday; photographs by Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks; and writings by Langston Hughes and Richard Wright. A special interactive website allows people to explore zoomable high-resolution images of all 60 panels.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the museum will hold a panel discussion next week led by Khalil Gibran Muhammad, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, on the continuing legacy of Jim Crow — how it shapes issues of race, justice and public policy today. It also has commissioned 10 noted poets to create poetry based on Lawrence’s series.

“The migration series is not history set in the past, but rather an ongoing phenomenon,” said exhibition curator Leah Dickerman. “It’s contemporary history focused on the experience of ordinary people and he tells it in a contemporary, almost cinematic way.”

The series opens with an image of a chaotic crowd in a train station pushing toward three ticket windows marked Chicago, New York and St. Louis.

Lawrence was the son of migrants who moved to Harlem when he was 13. “He often spoke of hearing stories of people ‘coming up’ from friends and family,” said Dickerman. He spent months researching the Great Migration before embarking on the series, beginning by coming up with short captions for the scenes he planned.

In an image of a large group of migrants weighed down with heavy bags he simply states: “The migration gained momentum.” Another of a migrant worker with his tenant landlord says “tenant farmers received harsh treatment at the hands of planters.”

Among other reasons blacks left in droves were lynchings in the South and the freedom to vote in the North, Lawrence said in captions accompanying other pictures.

So many left, that “crops were left to dry and spoil … there was no one to tend to them,” he says for a painting of a withering field.

“The works we’ve gathered in the show … testify to the importance of the migration as an extraordinary agent of cultural innovation, bringing the sounds and tastes and language of the South into a new urban framework,” said Dickerman. “Out of this came new genres and scores of landmark works — the very foundation for what we think of as the culture of urban America.”

If the exhibition “sparks a conversation, we’ll have done one thing about keeping our attention on one of the greatest issues of today,” added museum Director Glenn Lowry.

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