I did not think The Bluest Eye was a good choice as the first book for the book club at the women's homeless shelter. Most of the women at the shelter are black. The book, by Toni Morrison, is about a black girl who wants blue eyes. I have blue eyes. Sensible AmeriCorps volunteer though I was, I felt like the elephant in the room.
A staff member at the shelter had thought the book would be a good pick for the club. It's a classic; it provides for good discussion; it's written by a venerable black female author who could be a role model to anyone in the universe. So I agreed to it, found several used copies, and went to the first meeting brimming with books and gift bags.
As it turns out, race has nothing to do with why The Bluest Eye was not a good choice for the book club at the women's shelter. As far as I could tell, the women didn't care that Pecola is black, that Toni Morrison is black, that I have blue eyes. What they did care about was that when you crack open the first pages of The Bluest Eye, you are hit with a story that you have to paw your way through. It is beautiful, and it is difficult.
But this wasn't a literacy issue either. No: the women in the club were perfectly literate. All had graduated high school and one was enrolled in college classes. When I handed The Bluest Eye to an older woman who was hiding behind her hair, she said she'd read it before.
Instead of all the possible reasons why The Bluest Eye wasn't a good choice for the book club, there is the most obvious reason, one that has nothing to do with race or literacy.
We closed the book and my next few sentences probably began with Or. "Or whatever you want. Or are there books you've been wanting to read? Or what about James Patterson?"
At "James Patterson" the room came alive. They had read all his books and wanted to read them again. Titles flew back and forth so fast that I had to scribble to get them down, one after another after another -- and now we were on to authors I had never heard of, authors of fast-moving books of over-the-top drama, girls beating a staffer at their foster home nearly to death before running on to be thieves---
At first I didn't understand why the women found James Patterson and urban fiction more compelling than Toni Morrison, whose turns of phrase are like pulling fruit off a tree. Then I realized that if I were living in a homeless shelter, no way would I want to discuss Pecola and her blue-eye envy. No way would I want to load myself with thought. I would want to escape. The Bluest Eye was only more reality.
These were women who had just aged out of foster care, women who had been living in the shelter for years, women fighting for custody of their children, for solid futures, for solid footing. They read to get out of their situations and into worlds that were more dramatic and often more horrible than theirs were. They wanted to cross the boundary of reality, to leave it behind much like the romance-novel enthusiast with her wildflower fields and her muscled beau.
So I found the books they asked for and took them to the shelter. The women read so fast that I didn't even try to run a formal discussion group, but I made sure always to have something new for them to read. And as I watched them speed through the books week after week and bubble with delight at new titles, I realized that reading was each woman's road out while she plotted her next step forward.
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