Morrison praised by Pratt allies

Author: Achievement award winner recalls her early love for libraries as she is lauded for giving a `context' to people's lives.

November 09, 2001|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,SUN STAFF

She was the granddaughter of sharecroppers and barely into her teens, pushing a cart stacked with books in her hometown library. It was a job she was given through the influence of her older sister.

But Toni Morrison had been the first student in her grade to learn how to read, and the Lorain, Ohio, library spoke to something in her. Few books from the cart went back on the shelves without first being thumbed, rifled, or, when there was time, read cover-to-cover. "It was the first intellectual job I ever had," she said.

In a voice as rich as gravy, Morrison spoke of her love of libraries for about 15 minutes yesterday while picking up the fifth annual Lifetime Achievement Award from the Enoch Pratt Society.

The $10,000 award was presented by Lucille Clifton, a former classmate at Howard University and a friend of Morrison's for four decades. Clifton, a National Book Award winner for poetry, said of her friend: "She has taught us to see without pictures. She has provided for us a song, a literature and a context for our lives."

Donors to Baltimore's Enoch Pratt Free Library make up the society. Past winners include Saul Bellow, Joyce Carol Oates, John Barth and John Updike.

Now 70, Morrison has won nearly every major literary award in the English-speaking world. In 1978, her Song of Solomon won the National Book Critics Award. In 1988, Beloved won the Pulitzer Prize and a decade later was made into a film starring Oprah Winfrey. In 1993, she won the Nobel Prize for literature. Her novels have been praised for their lyricism, for their deft weaving of past, present and future, and for mingling the supernatural with everyday life.

But clearly, one of the awards that touched Morrison most deeply was when a reading room in her hometown library was named in her honor. It is, she said, "this place where people can come in off the street and sit for a couple of hours and take a book off the shelf and dwell there and go home."

The award from the Pratt Society falls into the same category. "My connection with libraries and library systems is profound," she said. "So your singling me out, along with those who have given extraordinary resources to this library, is something for which I am profoundly grateful. It is no small thing to me."

Morrison was referring to an announcement made earlier in the evening - a $1 million gift from Eddie and Sylvia Brown to endow the Pratt's African-American Collection.

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