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Author-Professor Toni Morrison Reflects Back On "Simpler Days"

Candace Braun

Despite the rainy weather on Sunday, more than 200 residents turned out for Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison's lecture, "Overdue: A Writer's Debt; A Reader's Interest," which discussed the importance of traditional libraries, and how their meaning has changed as technology has advanced.

Dr. Morrison began her talk in the University's Richardson Auditorium by reflecting on the personal significance that Firestone Library holds for her. Along with holding the manuscript of her first novel, The Bluest Eye, Firestone, unlike libraries that are built today, has kept its history rather than making significant changes as technology has advanced. She said she appreciates this because it means its keepers "understand preservation and innovation."

The University professor discussed the changes today in how authors conduct their research. Today many topics are researched on the Internet, whereas it used to be that everything had to be found through careful research at his or her local library.

She also talked about the introduction of "e-books" a few years ago, when it was suddenly possible to own and read several different novels through one electronic device that could fit right in your hand.

"I was eager to read these," she said, adding that the idea of being able to read novels on planes and trains without the fuss and hassle of carrying a book around seemed like a great idea at the time. However, she said, it wasn't the same as grasping the book in your hands, and being able to touch and smell its pages.

"I couldn't grasp the prose in the same way," she said.

Dr. Morrison mentioned how the University's online catalog both impresses and scares her: "I rather tremble at such an onslaught of material so readily available."

She said that the real problem with the Internet today, is that people no longer look at the data as a prerequisite to knowledge, but as an equivalence to knowledge, which undermines intellectual thought.

Born in 1931, the author recalled growing up in Lorain, Ohio, where she had to walk an hour and a half to get to the local public library, and she could only take out three books at a time.

"That was when a three-cent fine per day was regarded as an insult," she said.

Unsure that three cents was really regarded as a high price to pay for an overdue book in those days, Dr. Morrison said she decided to consult the Internet to find out if she was right about the fine. Instead of finding the information she was looking for, however, she was met with dozens of sites on all kinds of relevant, and yet at the same time irrelevant, information about overdue fines.

So she decided to consult her sister on the matter, who agreed the fine was three cents. She went on to recall that a dip of ice cream in a cone was also three cents, and two dips of ice cream was five cents at the time.

Her sister recalled that later she began buying ice cream cones and gallons of ice cream to avoid what she felt was a pricey cost for the sweet treat, but found the joy was not in the price or the convenience, but in the experience of walking down the street licking the cone.

"The experience of this conversation gave me something I wouldn't find by looking up overdue fines on the Internet," said Dr. Morrison, adding that through that conversation with her sister, she felt compelled to capture the image on paper of a child walking down the street very pleased with her ice cream, a feeling so many children experience, but at the same time is individual to each person in that moment.

Continuing with her love of books and a simpler time, Dr. Morrison recalled that when her home state of Ohio asked how it could honor her and her accomplishments – possibly through a statue, or establishing the house she grew up in as a historic site – the author said what she would like most is to have her library create a special room in her honor that would have good light, comfortable chairs, out of circulation books arranged alphabetically, and no kind of modern technology whatsoever found within its walls. She wanted it to be a reminder of what libraries used to be when she was a child.

"The room has become the most popular place in the library," she proudly told her audience.

The author of eight novels, Dr. Morrison is a Nobel Laureate, and the Robert F. Goheen Professor in Humanities at Princeton University. Her lecture was the first in a series of talks sponsored by the Friends of the Princeton University Library, honoring their 75th anniversary.

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