Blog – Posted on Thursday, May 13
15 Best Toni Morrison Books: Where to Start
The late great Toni Morrison was a giant of the literary world and an icon of Black literature. When she passed away in 2019, she had a long list of accolades to her name: winner of the Pulitzer prize, the first Black female editor at Random House, and the first (and only) Black female to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 2012, she was even presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
More importantly, Morrison has earned a place in the hearts and bookshelves of readers the world over by crystallizing the Black experience throughout American history in prose that is fluid, hypnotic, and flat out gorgeous.
Our point is, you should definitely be reading some Toni Morrison books! And you’ll find there’s a lot to catch up on. So where to start? Choosing the very best Toni Morrison books would be near impossible — and totally subjective. So instead we’ve curated the perfect route into a lifetime of remarkable writing.
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1. The Bluest Eye (1970)
If you’re at a loss for where to start with any author as eminent as Toni Morrison, we would always suggest picking up their debut novel. Written on scraps of paper while Morrison cooked her son’s dinner, The Bluest Eye was published during her time as an editor.
The novel follows a young girl named Pecola Breedlove, who grows up in Lorain, Ohio — Morrison’s hometown — in the years following the Great Depression. Consistently bullied for her dark skin and made to feel ugly and unloved, Pecola prays for the miracle of blue eyes — a hallmark of white American beauty. As a result of this impossible desire, and the trauma she suffers at the hands of others, Pecola’s life begins to unravel.
The Bluest Eye is a devastating book about the hostility and pain inflicted on vulnerable people by racialized standards of beauty. In what became her signature poetic prose, Morrison confronts this difficult theme, as well as those of incest and assault, with an innate humanity, setting the tone for her work to come.
2. Beloved (1987)
Toni Morrison’s Beloved is widely regarded as her greatest novel: partly because it won her the Pulitzer Prize, and partly because it is indeed great! Set in the wake of the American Civil War, the novel takes an unflinching look at the true horrors and psychological trauma of slavery.
Sethe is a runaway slave who continues to be haunted by her memories of the plantation eighteen years after her escape. Living in Ohio with her daughter, she becomes convinced that their home is inhabited by a malevolent spirit, which she believes to be the ghost of her baby, laid to rest in the garden beneath a tombstone marked ‘Beloved’.
This terrifying but important exploration of guilt and parenthood was inspired by the tragic, real-life story of Margaret Garner, an enslaved woman who escaped with her daughter to the free state of Ohio in 1856. In Beloved, Morrison gives a voice to the harrowing experiences of the “Sixty Million and more” African Americans who, like Garner, endured the atrocities of slavery.
3. Song of Solomon (1977)
Battling with Beloved in the popular vote for the title of “best book by Toni Morrison” is an early novel that paved the way for her vividly original later work. A stylistic tour de force, Song of Solomon is imbued with Morrison’s rich understanding of the novelistic tradition, and blends fable, fantasy, and magical realism, as her central character, Macon “Milkman” Dead III, comes of age.
A Black man living in Michigan against the backdrop of the Great Depression, Milkman grows up and leaves his Rust Belt city, striking out South in search of his family’s roots — and their rumored hidden treasure. This book is a wise and hard-hitting portrait of a young Black man getting to grips with his violent heritage. It not only won the acclaim of former president Barack Obama, but was also the first Morrison book to be selected for Oprah’s Book Club (a legitimately enormous platform) — so it comes highly recommended.
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4. Tar Baby (1981)
After years of juggling her day job as an editor with life as a single mother — all the while moonlighting as an author — the release of Tar Baby finally allowed Morrison to commit to being a full-time writer. What Random House lost in editing skills, however, they gained in writing talent, as Morrison achieved immeasurable success and hard-won acclaim with the seven novels that followed.
As for the book itself, Tar Baby reimagines the timeless story of the star-crossed lovers. Jadine Childs is a beautiful fashion model whose affluent white patron has sponsored her into education and elite society. A Black American now living in Europe, she has a sophisticated white boyfriend, a degree in art history, and a coat made out of ninety seal skins. Son is a Black fugitive who comes into the service of Jadine’s sponsors. An uneducated, rough, beautiful criminal, he embodies everything Jadine loathes and desires. Through their affair, Morrison acutely addresses the racism that’s ingrained in American society and charts the nuanced and superficial differences and assimilations that pit people against each other: master and servant, man and woman, Black and white.
5. Jazz (1992)
The second book in Morrison’s trilogy on African American history (after Beloved), Jazz sets itself apart from her other works in both style and setting, making it an important and exciting read for someone who, by this point, is probably a Toni Morrison fan.
Amid the urban tumult of 1920s Harlem, Jazz tells the tragic story of a love triangle between a murderous door-to-door salesman, his green-eyed, unstable wife, and his teenage lover Dorcas. The crime that kick-starts the narrative rips through this novel with a howl of love, rage, and betrayal, syncopating Morrison’s prose with all the swelling and dipping passions of a jazz tune. Jazz music not only lends the novel its energy and heat, but also inspires its structure, with shifting perspectives and hazy vignettes evoking the improvisation and polyphony of the genre.
6. Sula (1973)
In the poor, Black Midwest, in a neighborhood known as Bottom, two young girls, Nel and Sula, are the closest of friends. But though they are privy to each other’s secrets and dreams, they’re destined to grow into two very different women. Nel, raised in a straightlaced, conservative family, settles down and marries straight out of high school; while Sula, whose childhood with her eccentric grandmother and unpredictable mother was fraught with instability, disappears from town soon after Nel’s wedding. When she returns to Bottom after a mysterious ten year absence, she is cast as the town pariah. No one, least of all Nel, is prepared to trust her.
Sula is an all-too-familiar study of a world that resents strong women; one in which society tries to hold down wayward forces because it is trapped by fear and bound to social convention. Yet, despite being hard and bitter, Morrison’s novel is, as always, uplifting, rhapsodic, and achingly alive.
7. Paradise (1997)
“They shoot the white girl first. With the rest they can take their time.” These are the opening lines of Toni Morrison’s Paradise, the final book in her historical trilogy. An unforgettable meditation on gender, race, and religion, the novel opens with a chilling act of violence, and chronicles its genesis in an all-Black Oklahoma town called Ruby.
The town is built on fear, righteousness, and a strict moral code, and is completely dominated by its founding families — the descendants of freed slaves who can trace their ancestry back well over a hundred years. When this patriarchal community perceives itself to be under threat from an all-female town called the Convent, years of smoldering oppression will be stoked into flames of violent rage, and nine male citizens will lay their pain and anger on four young women. In soaring prose, Morrison weaves an unforgettable tapestry of folklore, history, and myth; past, present, and future.
8. God Help the Child (2015)
Morrison’s final novel combines the elements of magical realism that imbued Song of Solomon, with the shifting perspective of Jazz, and themes as audacious as those of The Bluest Eye, proving that she remained a powerful writer throughout her career.
The first book by Toni Morrison to be set in the current moment, God Help the Child anticipated a conversation that has come to dominate Black fiction several years later — that of colorism. At the novel’s center is “Bride”, a confident young woman with beautiful blue-black skin, who turns heads wherever she goes. But Bride did not always know how to wear her beauty. As a child she was denied love by her light-skinned mother, who was poisoned by that strain of color anxiety still present in Black communities.
Now, as Bride tries to love her man Booker, she finds herself betrayed by a desperate moment in her past, misshapen by the sins and sufferings of her childhood, and shrinking into the hairless body of a girl. Toni Morrison exposes the damage that adults can do to children in this brisk and ferocious novel.
9. A Mercy (2008)
Always a great chronicler of the American experience, in A Mercy, Morrison examines an era of the slave trade that is significantly less chartered than its final decades: namely, its very beginnings during the seventeenth century.
The story takes place in Virginia, in the home of an Anglo-Dutch merchant called Jacob Vaark, who agrees to accept a slave girl from a plantation owner in lieu of payment for a debt. Into Jacob’s home enters little Florens, joining his wife Rebekka, Lina, their Native American servant, and the little foundling Sorrow. Here among these women, Florens looks for the love she lacks in a mother; and together they face the trials of their harsh environment as Vaark attempts to carve a place for himself in a hostile and lawless new nation. A Mercy is so beautiful and elemental, it’ll leave you trembling at the power of its storytelling and the dignity of its purpose.
10. The Source of Self-Regard (2019)
The last of her works to be published before she died, The Source of Self-Regard is Toni Morrison in her own words. A rich gathering of her most important essays and speeches, this nonfiction collection is organized into three parts and spans the four decades of Morrison’s work. Each part is punctuated by a powerful introduction: the first, a searing prayer for the dead of 9/11; the second, a searching meditation on Martin Luther King Jr.; and the third, a heart-wrenching eulogy for James Baldwin. Beyond these introductions, she offers moving reflections on a variety of subjects, including female empowerment, wealth, the artist in society, and the African-American presence in literature. She also reflects on her own creative process, revisiting her most celebrated novels with a keen critical eye. So once you’ve read all the best Toni Morrison novels, this is the perfect book to pick up next.
11. Love (2003)
While hotel-owner Bill Cosey was alive, the women in his life would do almost anything to gain his favor. They gave him love and misery in equal measure, until they drove him to his grave. Even in death, Cosey’s hold on these women has lost none of its strength. Wife, daughter, granddaughter, employee, mistress: each voice in Morrison’s novel stakes their furious claim on his memory and his estate, forced together but driven apart by a hatred so deep and bitter that only their own death will free them from it.
This shrewd and funny tale is about so much more than a disputed will and divided affections, however. It is a bold and powerful work from a masterful storyteller on the nature of love itself — appetitive, possessive, all-consuming, and sublime. Love is rich in characters and drama, but it is also written with all the grace, sensitivity, and insight of earlier Toni Morrison novels.
12. Home (2013)
A young African-American veteran of the Korean war, Frank Money returns from the trauma of combat only to be thrust into a segregated United States that is riddled with lethal pitfalls for an unwary Black man. He is filled with growing self-loathing and contempt, but when he hears that his cherished little sister is gravely ill, he quickly regains a sense of purpose. Together, they return to their tiny Georgia hometown, revisiting the buried secrets of their childhood and discovering the roots of their shattered sense of self.
With incantatory power Morrison tells the story of this modern day Odysseus: a profoundly lost and defeated man who learns what it takes to heal, and consequently finds both his courage and his home. She uses the trials of Frank and his sister Cee to expose historical trauma — the racism of the 1950s, the devastating effects of war, and the self-serving techniques of a patriarchal medical industry — in this emotional powerhouse of a novel, Home.
13. The Origin of Others (2017)
The Origin of Others is a resonant book about literature and the fetishization of skin color, based on Morrison’s 2016 Norton lectures at Harvard University. Though this book is slim, Morrison takes on a mammoth topic: What is race and why does it matter? In her search for answers, Morrison takes up vital questions bearing on identity, and asks what motivates the enduring human tendency to invent and reinforce dehumanising categories of otherness.
Morrison turns to history and politics, as well as her own memories, but above all, she looks to literature — this is, after all, a book about the possibilities and responsibilities of the written word. Dissecting the works of authors from Ernest Hemingway to Camara Laye, she examines notions of racial purity and the ways in which literature employs skin color in characterization and narrative. Avid readers of Toni Morrison novels (and that very much includes you, if you make it this far!) will be pleased to hear that she also revisits her own work to discuss how things are said, what is left out, and why.
14. Playing in the Dark (1992)
A must-read for admirers of Tony Morrison’s novels (as well as students, scholars, and lovers of American literature), Playing in the Dark ponders the effect that a racialized society had on the American literary imagination of the 19th and 20th centuries. Her compelling argument is that the central themes of freedom, individualism, masculinity, and innocence, as well as an obsession with figurations of hell, were responses to an abiding Africanist presence, and to a Black population that was manifestly unfree. Through her brilliant discussions of the Black force that figures so significantly in the fiction of Early America — including novels by all-time greats such as Poe, Melville, and Hemingway — Morrison promises to change the way we read American literature.
15. The Big Box (199)
Even some of the most ardent Toni Morrison fans aren’t aware of the picture books that she co-wrote with her son Slade — but they really are a gift to the world of children’s literature. In true Morrison fashion, her picture books challenge the traditional perspectives that are so often reinforced in books for children, by including diverse and unconventional characters. The Big Box, for example, is about three children who don’t quite fit the mold. As a result, their parents send them to live in big boxes, and bring them things that children are supposed to crave — but what they really want is freedom. Though the pictures portray a more literal version of events, this thoughtful and complex story resonates on a figurative level, too, thanks to Morrison’s dreamlike magical realism.
Just as Morrison shared her love of writing with her son Slade, the final instalment on this list of Toni Morrison books provides the perfect end to your reading experience, by allowing you to pass on the baton by sharing her storytelling with the little readers in your life.
On the lookout for another author who adds a touch of magic to complex and thought-provoking themes? Look no further than the enchanting work of Haruki Murakami.