I was, apparently, late to learn to read as a child, a fact that seems hilarious to me in retrospect. I held off, determined to keep up the ritual of bedtime reading with my parents, until a neighbor girl demonstrated that she’d mastered this new skill, and then I couldn’t catch up fast enough.
My parents told me this, though I don’t remember a time when I couldn’t read. I still vividly recall what it’s like to read Elizabeth Enright’s “Gone-Away Lake” and “Return to Gone-Away” on a New England porch on a hot summer day; the shade of dress a young Laura Ingalls Wilder is wearing on the Garth Williams cover of “Little House in the Big Woods”; the guilty pleasure of cracking the spine on a “Star Wars” Expanded Universe novel on the way home from our late, lamented science fiction and fantasy bookstore.
And yet, though I’d been buried in books for a decade before I encountered her work, I still feel like Toni Morrison is the person who really taught me how to read.
My senior year of high school, I took an elective English class on religion and literature. After making our way through the Old Testament in its entirety and diving down into hell with both Dante and John Milton, we were assigned to read “Song of Solomon.” While it’s hardly the first book I ever remember reading, it is certainly the first time I recollect feeling a fierce drive to understand how a book worked.
I read and reread it, parsing Morrison’s references to the Bible, other works of literature and American history. I marveled at the way she pulled plot threads together, weaving her characters more and more tightly until the novel ended in a way I hadn’t expected, but that felt inevitable once I had arrived there. And I marveled at Morrison’s ability to both construct the whole edifice of a novel and also to write novels that felt like the individual sections of stained-glass windows. There are a lot of great final sentences in literature, but few that can claim to rival the conclusion to “Song of Solomon”: “If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”
The lessons Morrison taught me about how to read know no boundaries. Because “Song of Solomon” is rooted in the bodies and desires of its characters, it helps me understand why Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels work, even though Morrison’s book has a black American man as its main character and the other is about a group of women from Naples. And these insights are deeply democratic. The same pull to map the connections between characters, plotlines and allusions in “Song of Solomon” helped me spend years analyzing HBO’s adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones.”
When I think about “Song of Solomon” now, it stands as a milestone in my mind, between the time when I simply devoured books, and the time when I learned to truly see them. Unlike Morrison’s protagonist, Milkman, I’ll never learn to fly. But all these years later, “Song of Solomon” is one of the few books that’s made me feel like some sort of magical understanding was within my grasp.