The first time I read Beloved I was rollerblading through the suburban Midwestern neighborhood not far from my childhood home, headphones cords flapping behind me as I careened downhill under a canopy of old growth trees. I was sixteen that summer, young enough still to face unknown territory but old enough to set my sights on the horizon, to recognize a boundary when I crossed one. All summer I darted up and down streets as I listened to Toni Morrison read from her book.
Her voice wriggled under my skin and the rhythm of her words matched my pace — or rather my pace found her rhythm. My teen legs pushed mile after mile over the pavement, her words carried me further than my legs could on my own. Even when I skidded on sun-soaked asphalt, Toni Morrison’s voice kept me more or less upright and helped me find my feet when I did take a tumble.
Soon after I finished Beloved I traded in my rollerblades for running shoes. I slipped a CD of another audiobook into my Discman and jogged through another part of my hometown, intent on finding my way in the world and certain, thanks to Beloved, that I could persevere past adolescence.
I find Beloved breathtaking because of the way Morrison grapples with how memories coexist with and continue to influence our present lives. Remembering, forgetting and telling stories are interconnected themes of Beloved, together bring they into relief the grief and pain that have been engraved on the hearts of Sethe, Denver and Paul D. I think it’s because I read Beloved on rollerblades — rather than despite that fact — I have yet to find another book that has imprinted itself on my cardiovascular system, my muscles, my bones and my sinew, in such a way my whole body remembers the book I once ingested and the neighborhood through it refuses to let go.
Some people say listening to audio books does not count as reading. I disagree. As a nervous child I hated, sitting still long enough to read, it seemed a passive activity, rooted in one spot. Strapping on rollerblades for the first time, clamping the puffy headphones over my ears, I discovered a freedom that has, over time, made me not only a consistent athlete but also a more consistent reader.
Listening to a book, it’s impossible to skim, to skip ahead to the next interesting paragraph; you have to wait for each word, each sentence, as it unfolds, and you hear the punctuation, the poetry of the writer’s choices. There’s something comforting about having to develop that patience not that dissimilar from the work and pleasure of running. When you run, you can’t skip miles by coasting down a hill the way you can on wheels; you have to put one foot in front of the other, for however far you want to go. As your feet and breath find the rhythm of the run, your heartbeat and thoughts find the rhythm of the story. You’re not running alone but among a sea of voices, perhaps more important alongside one voice. The voice of the author or narrator.
No surprise, really, that of all the books I listened to as I covered miles of suburban roads Toni Morrison’s Beloved conjured a lasting imprint. Morrison won both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award for Beloved in 1988. The book demonstrates Morrison’s total control of her craft. She is a master of all her tools but perhaps most especially the champion of point-of-view she moves seamlessly between characters. The reader slips into Sethe, Denver, Paul D, Baby Suggs, and even the mysterious Beloved perspectives. Even shifting between the story’s present and past Morrison stays close to her narrator, as your mind might to trigger memory
Metaphors gleaned from the natural world connect the story physical setting in Ohio, to the past in rural Kentucky. No extra words and no dialogue tags the syntax magnifies chosen repetition. The world of Beloved — tragic, heart rendering tenderness was so different from my own.
Books were the gateway to a whole world. Each new audiobook grounded my efforts in a particular place, each step moved the story forward and so that the story, in turn, blossoms along the way. When I lived in Philadelphia I trotted an eight-mile route paved with Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. I pounded a windier, more circuitous eleven-mile path through Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy. I plodded up a long steep hill in tears as Toni Morrison’s A Mercy came to its perfect heartbreaking end. Whenever I return to my hometown and walk the streets I used to cover with Beloved, I not only see the neighborhood I used to call home. I hear the story and remember the feeling Morrison’s nouns and verbs created to build that story and the world within it.
Listening to Beloved on my feet taught me a really good book will change the way you move through the world. But Beloved was unique for me, even as I devoured other Toni Morrison novels. I listened to Morrison’s The Bluest Eye on a road trip between my hometown and St. Paul, Minnesota. I still associate that book with the thrill of racing up the interstate and winding through the residential neighborhoods, lingering in a parking lot outside Garrison Keillor’s bookstore waiting to reach it’s ending. I read Morrison’s Paradise on commuter trains between Philadelphia and Princeton, it helped pass time as I moved through space.
The critics generally agreed Paradise is not part of Morrison’s best work, but it’s not the book’s relative lack (compared to her other masterpieces, nor the general expectations for Western literature) of literary greatness kept it from taking root in my soul. Rather, I was simply reading it, in much the same way I’ve read hundreds of other books. I turned page after page, skimming through the less compelling parts, flipping ahead to the end to satisfy my impatience with even the best written suspense novels. The meaning of these books, their impact, isn’t engraved in my muscles and tendons in the way Beloved etched itself into my hamstrings and quadriceps.
Running with audio books set down a literary cache in the points on my journey, the places I to return to for inspiration. Although I can’t travel to Morrison’s Ohio and Mid-Atlantic, Gaiman’s Faerie and Atwood’s post-apocalyptic world. I stay book-drunk longer, the buzz extended by the simple fact I continue to move along the streets where not only the muscles in my legs but my whole body paid attention as I moved with the story along the paths retained in my mind, memory. A tale about a fallen star. The three voices woven together in love story. I run along the landmarks and milestones of my literary life reminded where I’ve been as a reader and where I am going as a writer.
It’s been more than a decade since I lived in that leafy neighborhood where I grew up. I lived in five states, studied at three universities, explored more of the world as I journeyed from a casual reader to a professional writer. I now live in Princeton where as I wander around campus and through town I hope to run into Toni Morrison, who taught at the university for years.
Almost fifteen years since I first listened to Beloved I was relaxing on the back deck of our apartment. While on the phone with my mother I Rested my feet against the deck railings. I flexed my leg muscles surprised to see my thighs tighten and my calves take shape. I wondered what if my literary muscle, toned through hours of audio books, might look like. Had it gotten stronger since I first fastened rollerblades on my feet and headphones over my ears? As I examined my legs I remembered all the stories along all the miles that had made them powerful and strong. My fingers traced the inch-long scars that still pock my kneecaps, the only physical reminders of the time I slid on fresh asphalt and plunged to the pavement. I had stood knees bleeding and tucked my rollerblades under my arm. With my ear buds blaring the story of Sethe and baby Suggs and Big D, I wobbled home barefoot Toni Morrison’s prose keeping me calm.
HILLARY MOSES MOHAUPT is a listmaker: she’s a writer, editor, communications consultant, and francophile. She is one-half of the Screen Sirens, a podcast about women and social justice in classic Hollywood films.