The Books Briefing: What Toni Morrison Saw

The words and worlds of a literary titan: Your weekly guide to the best in books

Benoit Tessier / Reuters

The legacy of Toni Morrison, who died this week at the age of 88, seems nearly impossible to summarize. The 1993 Nobel laureate for literature, she was the author of 11 novels, one of which won a Pulitzer Prize, as well as numerous works of nonfiction. As an editor, she published and promoted the work of a generation of black writers—which is to say nothing of the artists she continues to inspire, including other cultural giants such as Oprah and Beyoncé.

For all this legendary status, however, a recent documentary captures Morrison’s life in intimate, personal terms. And the strength of her work is deeply rooted in its humanity—in black characters whose internal struggles and strengths are fully realized and compassionately written. Her first novel, The Bluest Eye, challenged the oppression of white beauty standards. And her last, God Help the Child, celebrated how people can overcome painful histories to find fulfillment.

Each week in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Check out past issues here.

Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

What We’re Reading

A writer of rare compassion and kaleidoscopic vision
“Both despite and because of the specificity of their settings, her characters evince fears and desires and pain that then consume the reader. Morrison’s world extends far beyond her pages; it embeds itself in those who witness it.”

📚 The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
📚 The Source of Self-Regard, by Toni Morrison
📚 On Black Difficulty,” by Namwali Serpell
📚 Nobel lecture, by Toni Morrison
📚 “No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear,” by Toni Morrison

I’m writing my memoir for Toni Morrison
“I survived the white gaze for Pecola [the heroine of The Bluest Eye], and it was Morrison who taught me how.”

📚 Sula, by Toni Morrison
📚 Surviving the White Gaze, by Rebecca Carroll (forthcoming)

Mining lyrical power and human strength from childhood suffering
“Morrison’s greatness—the beauty of her prose, her formal and imaginative risk-taking, her intellectual prowess—is founded on fiction about human devilishness and weakness, bodies crippled and in crisis, and the impact of our histories on our emotional faculties.”

📚 God Help the Child, by Toni Morrison
📚 Jazz, by Toni Morrison
📚 Love, by Toni Morrison
📚Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison

A documentary that shows another side of Toni Morrison
“In spite of her larger-than-life status, Morrison is captured [on-screen] in exceedingly human terms.”

📽️ Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am, directed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
📚 Beloved, by Toni Morrison

The Reference Desk

(New York Public Library)

After Sarah requested some titles for her upcoming trip to Hawaii, a reader named Grant proposed making a similar list for future travelers to Australia, as “sort of homework before [they] go.” His choice to start that list is Bruce Chatwin’s book The Songlines, which is named for—and traverses—the paths that, according to Aboriginal mythology, were traveled by spirits in the Dreamtime and have been recorded in traditional songs. Murray Bail’s novel Eucalyptus tells the fablelike story of a young woman, her suitors, her father, and his hundreds of eucalyptus trees in a similarly inventive, meandering narrative (as the writer Jane Alison notes in her own recent book). The Guardian lists some of the best recent books from Australia here, and the magazine Australian Geographic selects 12 of the country’s must-reads here.

Write to the Books Briefing team at or reply directly to this email with any of your reading-related dilemmas. We might feature one of your questions in a future edition of the Books Briefing and offer a few books or related Atlantic pieces that might help you out.

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Rosa Inocencio Smith. The book on her coffee table right now is Literally Me, by Julie Houts.

Comments, questions, typos? Reply to this email to reach the Books Briefing team.

Did you get this newsletter from a friend? Sign yourself up.