A volume that attests to Morrison’s singularity, with a cultural resonance that extends well beyond literature.

GOODNESS AND THE LITERARY IMAGINATION

HARVARD'S 95TH INGERSOLL LECTURE WITH ESSAYS ON MORRISON'S MORAL AND RELIGIOUS VISION

The Nobel Prize–winning author’s lecture at the Harvard Divinity School as well as a rich collection of scholarly illumination of the religious dimensions of her fiction.

In 2012, Morrison (The Source of Self-Regard: Essays, Speeches, Meditations, 2019, etc.) was invited to give the 95th annual Ingersoll Lecture at Harvard. Those exploring her work were not literary critics and scholars but a pan-disciplinary group of “scholars of religion, history, theology, and ethics.” According to the editors’ introduction, “Morrison’s work has become a kind of sacred text, and reading her a spiritual practice for many.” The close readings of her work in these critical essays build strong cases for such a focus while never subverting the purely literary value of her work or reducing it to theological dogma. Her lecture provides the starting point: “Goodness: Altruism and the Literary Imagination” shows how the novel, which once reflected a world in balance—“Dickens, Hardy, and Austen all left their readers with a sense of the restoration of order and the triumph of virtue”—has changed dramatically. Now, she writes, “Evil has a blockbuster audience; Goodness lurks backstage. Evil has vivid speech; Goodness bites its tongue.” As these essays suggest, Morrison has addressed evil throughout her fiction and has steeped her work in it while also meeting its challenge with love and a spirit of redemption. “Religion and the religious dimensions of African American life permeate her novels, sometimes in Christian tones, sometimes in African tones, always through the strange stuff of existence,” writes Davíd Carrasco in “The Ghost of Love and Goodness.” A Mexican American historian of religion at Harvard, Carrasco provides a bookend to the lecture with his 2017 interview with Morrison, which reflects on the lecture and its themes and her powerful assessment of slavery as “the story [of] people who were treated like beasts [but] did not become beastly.” Instead, they created “a culture that this country could not do without.”

A volume that attests to Morrison’s singularity, with a cultural resonance that extends well beyond literature.

Pub Date: Oct. 15, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-8139-4362-6

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Univ. of Virginia

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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