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A dizzy nation that reads less than it should, and does so in increasingly short bursts, must breathe deeply and absorb the passing of a woman whose words over five decades have captured the tragic, infuriating, beautiful essence of the human condition.

Not just any human condition. Toni Morrison was an African-American woman who proudly wove stories about other African-American women, dignifying lives that had been defined and disparaged and sometimes destroyed by the ravages of racism. The interior voices brought to life by her rhythmic prose in more than a dozen novels, essay collections and plays over many decades were both otherworldly and painfully real.

Morrison began her career on the outside of the American literary canon looking in, a single mother editing other people’s books at a Manhattan publishing house. By the time of her death Monday in the Bronx, she had not only claimed the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Pulitzer Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and a Princeton professorship, and authored works that demanded a place on the bookshelf of every scholar. She was also on the bedside tables of millions of readers, their lives forever enriched. Enriched, and also unsettled.

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Morrison wrote of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in her introduction to an edition of that foundational American work: “For a hundred years, the argument that this novel is has been identified, re-identified, examined, waged and advanced. What it cannot be is dismissed. It is classic literature, which is to say it heaves, manifests and lasts.”

Affix those sentences to her ouvre.

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