The night Toni Morrison cast a spell on me (or, the “One Book, One Chicago” Keynote Lecture)
[I’ll get back to horror tomorrow, I promise. This was too good not to write about.]
Toni Morrison might be magical.
Before more than a few sentences had escaped her lips, the full house at Chicago’s Symphony Center went quiet.
For the next fifty minutes, the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winner talked about the thoughts that drove her to write “A Mercy,” and then read passages from her 2008 novel. Her smooth voice cast a spell over everyone in attendance, and the only sound to occasionally break through were a few coughs, and a few well-deserved rounds of applause.
“A Mercy” was selected as the official book for the 19th installment of “One Book, One Chicago,” a program hosted by the Chicago Public Library to get Chicagoans reading and talking about the same book. It’s a wonderful program, in which free copies of the selected book are handed out, many more are available in the library branches around town, and discussion groups, lectures, and film screenings (practically all free of charge) focus on the book. Past selections have included “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Pride and Prejudice,” and “The Crucible,” among other masterpieces.
This fall, it was time for Toni Morrison.
After attending the kick-off lecture by Dr. Dwight McBride (a former research assistant to Professor Morrison) I’d heard that the author herself was going to be delivering the keynote lecture, and that tickets were free if you walked over to the Symphony Center. (If you ordered them online, they were – I believe – $5 dollars for the handling fee.) I secured a pair of tickets and Eric and I put the event in our planners.
We’ve both read “A Mercy,” and found it to be a compelling and wonderfully written book about a hard time in history. Slavery is never a pretty thing, but Toni Morrison does something wonderful; she embraces the harsh ugliness of all of it, and through her prose, makes it all seem darkly beautiful.
So, last night, we left work and headed to the gorgeous Symphony Center. We arrived early enough to get front row seats, and watched as the excited crowd flocked in – many carrying their copies of “A Mercy.”
At 7:00pm, Mary Dempsey (Commisioner of the Chicago Public Library) came out to the podium to welcome all of us, as well as to take care of housekeeping things – the standard “turn off your phone” spiel. She also got the task of introducing representatives from a few of the companies that sponsor “One Book, One Chicago,” The McCormick Foundation, AllState, and Motorola. Wisely, the speakers from each company kept it swift (though the AllState lady could have been swifter) and let the focus of the evening go where it belonged: On the author.
Toni Morrison took the stage, seated in a red chair next to a table with purple flowers. She started off by praising the official study guide that was published for this installment of “One Book, One Chicago” for knowing more about the book than she herself did.
For a brief while, she spoke about the things that interested her and inspired her to write “A Mercy.” She was always interested in the consequences of racism. She recalled a schoolmate at the age of 9 or 10, who told her she didn’t believe in God, as she’d been praying to God for two years to have blue eyes. Her eyes were not blue. She spoke of how the founding fathers believed fully in the separation of church and state, as “religion was bloody” in those days. She expressed her belief that “our job is to become better human beings.”
Finally, Professor Morrison ended the evening by reading two passages from her book. Her rich voice carried her words majestically through the seated audience. Not a word was spoken by anyone else. The woman has so much power in her sweet voice, she should consider reading her own audio books. I would absolutely buy each and every one.
I am, indeed, a happy booknerd. The whole evening was a moment I’ll never forget as long as I live.
Tomorrow night, Toni Morrison will be presented with the Carl Sandburg Literary Award at a gala dinner – and will then sit down for a conversation about her work with none other than Oprah – FYI.