I’d been on the NYPL digital wait list to read Toni Morrison’s book Beloved for the last month or so, and have finally gotten off the waitlist. I’ve spent the last couple of days reading it on my Kindle and am so regretful that it took me this long to read any of her works. It is no wonder that she won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1993, as it was said that she is someone who “in novels characterized by visionary force and poetic import, gives life to an essential aspect of American reality.” I’m embarrassed to say that her books have been on my reading list since I was 14, but I haven’t gotten to them until now. I’m only 19 years behind, right? She is one of the most famous, well respected African American female writers in the world, and was even given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then President Barack Obama in 2012.
When Morrison passed away this past August, Obama wrote a tribute to her on his social media, which included: “Time is no match for Toni Morrison. In her writing, she sometimes toyed with it, warping and creasing it, bending it to her masterful will. In her life’s story, too, she treated time nontraditionally.”
As I reflected on Toni Morrison and her legacy and thought about the pages I’ve read of Beloved, I thought about how I’ve always loved reading and used to dream about being a famous, respected fiction writer myself (that dream is dead now, though). And then I had this memory pop up from my college years. I once said in front of friends and their partners during college that having a Nobel Prize in Fiction would be such a great honor, to which a friend’s ignorant and narrow-minded partner once said, “A Nobel Prize in literature is the most useless Nobel Prize. Who cares about literature? It doesn’t do anything for the world.”
I already didn’t like this person. He majored in computer science and was pre-med. He would start medical school the summer after graduating from undergrad, but since he had the summer free, he took on a full time job in computer science just to make money for the summer, and quit at the summer’s end without being transparent about his intentions. He just wanted the money, he said, and it was a lot of money to pass up, even with only three months’ time of work. Everything to him was about money; the idea of learning and growing and trying to do good for the world seemed stupid and naive to him, and he oftentimes said it. He would eventually graduate from medical school and go on to be a plastic or orthopedic surgeon, solely because he noted that these were some of the best paid medical professions to go into.
I look back and realize what a good decision it was to not only stop spending time with that friend, but by default, her chosen partner. If you cannot understand the importance of literature, of good writing, then you probably are a shallow and ignorant person, likely greedy and superficial and not a person of substance that I’d want to spend time with. Literature not only describes reality, but also adds to it, as so many notable writers have stated. Literature is both reality and art at the same time; it forces people to consider other states of being, other mindsets, other lives and situations that are so vastly different from their own. It encourages creativity and imagination, and what would life be without creativity and imagination? If you have been exposed to great literary works, then chances are also high that you have also been privileged to get far above average educational opportunities, as well. Literature is an opportunity for growth, for self-improvement, for viewing the world with a lens that is not like your own. And that is an invaluable thing that cannot necessary be quantified.