Reading Guide: ‘Jazz’ by Toni Morrison

Voyage Out meets the last Sunday of every month at BookPeople. On March 25 at 5 p.m. the group will discuss Toni Morrison’s Paradise. You (and your friends) are invited to join! Below, Brian offers a reading guide to another Morrison novel, Jazz, which Voyage Out discussed last month.


Voyage Out reads books in three-month, themed regions. The group is open to all, and all are welcome. (For more information about Voyage Out, including how the group chooses titles, click here.)

This series of ‘guides’ is designed to help other book groups focus meetings of their own when they read the same title. These are not definitive or perfect, but they do reflect the conversations Voyage Out has. 

jazz

Book information: 

Jazz by Toni Morrison; 256 pgs; ISBN#9781400076215; Vintage Paperback 

Region: 

Toni Morrison’s “Jazz Trilogy”

Other books in the region: 

BelovedParadise

About the author:

There may be no other author in American history that has Toni Morrison’s combination of critical and popular acceptance. Her work has been honored by the Swedish Academy when she was awarded literature’s highest honor, the Nobel Prize, and her work has been championed by one of the most substantial pop culture entities ever: Oprah.

Born Chloe Anthony Wofford on February 18, 1931 in Lorain, Ohio, Morrison is a writer who notably chronicles the American experience, the experience of African American women in particular.

Growing up in the Midwest, her family took pride in and valued greatly African American culture, including storytelling, songs and folktales. Morrison graduated from Howard University in 1953 and Cornell University in 1955. She taught at Texas Southern University for two years — she taught at Howard for a bit longer. In 1965 she became a fiction editor at Random House, where she was able to champion writers of color and black writers specifically. From 1984 she taught writing at the State University of New York at Albany. In 1989 she took her talents to Princeton University.

Morrison published her first book, The Bluest Eye, in 1970 and has continued to publish high end literature to the present.

As mentioned before, she was awarded the Nobel Prize (1993). Additionally, in 2010, she was made an officer of the French Legion of Honor, and was later awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Questions/tangents/topics:

  1. Toni Morrison talks about this book in terms of “… rendering a period in African American life through a specific lens.” With all we know about what a reader brings to a book, and specifically about what a reader needs to bring to a Morrison book, how specific of a lens is even possible? If everything is filtered through a reader, is this even possible?
  2. How do plot and form and style inform each other in this book? This is a question that can be asked of any novel, but Jazz makes this question particularly interesting.
  3. What happens to the reader in a book that tells so much of what happens in the beginning?
  4. Other than mentions and descriptions of jazz music throughout the book, is there something more going on with the books connection to the musical form? What about the larger idea of the Jazz Age?
  5. Harlem is a name that rings out now, and it rang out then. People from all over the world, when you say the word “HARLEM,” have an immediate reaction and conjure immediate images. How does your personal image coincide or diverge from Morrison’s depiction?
  6. How does the first word of the book ‘Sth’ set up the rest of the book? Does it?
  7. Who’s the narrator? Who’s the narrator talking to?
  8. How do flashbacks fill in the bio’s of each character? How do these flashbacks change your opinions/thoughts on the character’s present places?
  9. This is the second book in a trilogy (Beloved, Jazz, and Paradise), we read Beloved last month, does this feel like a series? How? How not?
  10. The flashbacks introduce us to a whole motley crew of interesting and rich stories, is there one of those stories in particular that was of such interest to you that you would love to read the novel of their lives?

What we talk about when we talk about this book:

  1. The concept of justice in this book is of interest in that it either has a nontraditional concept or is of no interest at all to the characters and the place/time the characters live – Harlem 1925-26. We had a great conversation about the concept of “Justice” inside this particular space.
  2. The novel has such an interesting narrator. We discussed who the narrator was, and some of the rules the novel broke in terms of traditional narrative structures. We spent a good amount of time just talking about the book’s first sentence –”Sth.” So much fun.
  3. We talked about the broken or displaced families in the book, hitting on the story of Wild in particular. This breaking of traditional family units by history and movement creates an oddly intimate setting in Harlem.
  4. We talked about how hard the book was to read, not just in terms of story line, but in terms of style. Readers differed in how disjointing the rhythm of the book was, but everyone was impressed by how purposeful every vagary seemed. We all agreed that Morrison was difficult, but ultimately worth the work.
  5. We looked back at Beloved, and looked forward to Paradise, and felt that these books do enhance themselves (so far) when read as a unit. That, so far, the sum of the parts has been greater than the whole.

Mark your calendars: 

paradise

Voyage Out next meets March 25 at 5 p.m. to discuss another Morrison novel, Paradise. Join us, at BookPeople!

— Brian C. 

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