I LEARNED to read when I was 19.

That is, I could read. I did read. God, did I read. An only child living in a different town from her school friends before phones and tablets and the internet.

That’s all I did do. Read. Saturday morning trips to the library and then Saturday afternoons and long Sundays confined to the sofa reading. Reading, reading.

At 19, though, I learned what all that reading was for.

“124 was spiteful. Full of a baby’s venom.”

All those years of practice leading to this. Why had no one said sooner? Maybe sooner and I wouldn’t have been ready for it.

My family home was full of books. My mother loved to read and instilled in me very early on the vital importance of libraries.

That, not only were you never lonely with a book, you could never be isolated or alone when there was a library nearby, a cathedral of company and care.

Half living in the library, I hadn’t realised how richly populated were our household bookshelves until I started university and most of the recommended texts were already in my grasp. John Updike and Jane Austen, Miles Franklin and William Thackerey.

All transporting, all valuable.

But this, why had no one told me about this? "As soon as two tiny hand prints appeared in the cake (that was it for Howard)." That was it for me. As Sethe is haunted by the return of her dead child, Beloved and Toni Morrison haunted me.

Until then I had not been a reader, I had been a joyrider. A literary grazer, snacking light bits here and there.

Beloved was a full meal, each sentence coating the tongue – salt, sweet, bitter, sour, umami – to be read with heart crouching, poised for the next furious blow.

Now I was a reader confronted fully with her own ignorance. America, then, was still an aspiration.

We absorbed its films, its television series and its food. We wanted to travel there, to intern there, to gain a place at an American college. To move to New York.

It was a glittering future panacea, not a Trump-led vista of mass shootings and caged asylum seeking children.

I looked to America as an impressionable teenager. What did I know of its enslaved people? What did I know of its racism?

Almost nothing until Beloved, a book about black women and their experiences told without me in mind. Toni Morrison confronted me with my privilege before knowing about privilege became fashionable.

And I used this new knowledge to continue to learn. I finished Beloved and I started it again.

It was a discussion of history, family and of America itself. And it had humour. Sethe and Denver attempt to hold a seance to soothe the baby terrorising their house. They hold hands and call for it to come. “The sideboard stepped forward but nothing else did.” They pushed the sideboard back against the wall, I turned the page.

Who was this man, I wanted to know, who had knocked me unconscious and brought me back round with a slap?

Who was this guy who let history move through his prose, whose words were the root and the roof?

To the library, for answers.

Wait, this was a woman? A woman still alive? A lecturer at Princeton. Mind blown.

Imagine sitting in a lecture theatre and having Toni Morrison stride in to deliver her thoughts. I could not imagine it. My literary loves were all dead and here was one alive and accessible, still writing.

And of course Toni Morrison was a woman, these novels deal so intensely with women. About women's need for and need to reject difficult men, about how they love: eros, storge, philia, agape.

Their struggle to survive in body and with spirit. Men's need to control them because they do not understand them.

This didn't suit everyone. “Beloved was a fraud," the writer Stanley Crouch said. "It gave a fake vision of the slave trade, it didn’t deal with the complicity of Africans, and it moved the males into the wings."

I loved that it moved the males into the wings. “He licked his lips. ‘Well, if you want my opinion…’ ‘I don’t,’ she said. ‘I have my own.’”

But Mr Crouch was wrong. Morrison's novels deal with fraternity, they take great care with brotherly love and friendship.

A Morrison novel issues commands, it comes with instructions. "At some point in life the world's beauty becomes enough," in Tar Baby. "You don't need to photograph, paint or even remember it. It is enough...you don't need someone to share it with or tell it to." Published in 1981, before phones and tablets and the internet. Re-read it now and take a different meaning.

In Virginia the authorities tried to ban Beloved from the school curriculum by attempting to pass a bill stating teachers must inform parents when any work deemed sexually explicit was to be taught to students.

Recently, in 2017.

The book has been challenged repeatedly, according to the American Library Association, in school districts across the country. An America perpetually uncomfortable with itself, the America Toni Morrison critiqued.

Those things in life “vaulting the mere blue space that separates us” are few, Morrison said but, she concludes, these are “language, image and experience”.

In language and image she schooled us. In experience she pushed the pursuit of meaningfulness, integrity, truth. She counselled against a trivial life, a barren life. Never live for material things: “It’s looking good, instead of doing good.”

When she died on Tuesday there were outpourings of sadness but she had done good, she kept her word.

The only way to honour Toni Morrison is with her own words because who else can match them, and to say goodbye to her with matchless words feels insulting.

Sadness then, at her death. Sadness knowing there will be no more writing but joy in a legacy left to teach and encourage.

"We die," she said. "That may be the meaning of life. But we do language.

"That may be the measure of our lives."