Why Maggie Nelson Is Drawn to Certain Autobiographies

“I have a soft spot for books by tough, radically honest women with an uncommon antenna for magic, language and landscape,” says Maggie Nelson, the author, most recently, of “On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint.”

What books are on your night stand?

“The Force of Nonviolence,” by Judith Butler, “The Copenhagen Trilogy,” by Tove Ditlevsen, “Liner Notes for the Revolution,” by Daphne A. Brooks, “The Order of Time,” by Carlo Rovelli, “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk.”

What’s the last great book you read?

I just read a galley of Grace Lavery’s “Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis,” forthcoming from Seal Press, and thought it was really great — full of originality and verve. Also, the first story, “I’ll Swallow Your Dreams,” from Christos Ikonomou’s “Good Will Come From the Sea” — a dystopian collection about Greece’s economic devastation — blew my head off with its tender and awful brutality.

Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?

Does Thomas Bernhard’s “The Loser” count? Also, in order to write an essay about the artist Tala Madani, I recently reread “The Scarlet Letter,” as Madani said it was an important book for her — it was as if I were reading it for the first time. Hawthorne is so messed up! Lastly, though I have read nearly all James Baldwin’s criticism, I have neglected the fiction (typical for me), so I recently read “Go Tell It on the Mountain” for the first time. “Giovanni’s Room” is next.

What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?

“Crazy for Vincent,” by Hervé Guibert. I scarcely want to let the 96-page secret out.

What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?

I read everything that seems related. For a roomy book like “On Freedom,” which covers several disparate subjects, that means reading a lot. I don’t avoid reading turgid or dense prose — after all, quite a bit of philosophy, scholarship, theory, climate reportage, etc. is not written in beautiful language that I want to emulate, but must be read anyway, for the info and ideas. But if I’m going to do that, it’s important to balance it out by reading great critical stylists: Sontag, Baldwin, Barthes, Hilton Als. As I was searching for the sound and tone of “On Freedom,” I returned often to Anne Carson’s prefaces to her translation of plays by Euripides, “Grief Lessons.” “Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief”: This is the sound of hot, lucid criticism cutting to the chase, zeroing in on all the right questions.

“On Freedom” explores some thorny ethical questions concerning its title subject, especially in regards to our relationships with other people. What writers helped you think about the topic?

Fred Moten & Stefano Harney, Eve Sedgwick, Judith Butler, Hannah Arendt, George Oppen, Manolo Callahan, Mariame Kaba, Denise Ferreira da Silva, Denise Riley, Saidiya Hartman, Jacqueline Rose, Wendy Brown, Amber Hollibaugh, Gayle Rubin, Harry Dodge, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Dean Spade & Tourmaline, Buddhist literature, recovery literature.

Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?

I find (relatively) simply told, mainstream autobiographies a guilty pleasure. I am reading Rickie Lee Jones’s “Last Chance Texaco” right now, for example, and really enjoying it. It reminds me of two other autobiographical books by poets that I love: Alice Notley’s “Mysteries of Small Houses” and Joy Harjo’s “Crazy Brave.” I have a soft spot for books by tough, radically honest women with an uncommon antenna for magic, language and landscape.

Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?

My literary relationship with Christina Crosby, author of “A Body, Undone: Living On After Great Pain,” and prominent figure in several of my books, has felt quite reparative to me. Crosby, who died this past January, often told me that she felt witnessed and fortified by my writing about her; I, in turn, ended up feeling witnessed and fortified by her writing about me. The positivity of that relay reminded me that autobiographical writing doesn’t always have to feel bad, it doesn’t always have to be a blood sport.

What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?

Carlo Rovelli’s “The Order of Time” is full of staggering revelations that are probably too hard to explain here, but which might be summarized by the old James Taylor line, “The thing about time is that time isn’t really real.” That the difference between the present and the future is only a product of “our own blurred vision of the world” — or that “Our ‘present’ does not extend throughout the universe,” but is rather “like a bubble around us” — I could (and will) read and think about such things again and again until they begin to sink in. (Shout-out to Dawn Lundy Martin, who recommended the book to me in one of the lowest moments of the pandemic; it helped.)

How do you organize your books?

The big bookcases in our main room are organized by subject or genre clumps that inevitably bleed into each other: ecology, philosophy, poetry, classic novels, contemporary fiction, art books, religious and spiritual classics, psychoanalysis, “the epic tradition,” self-help, zines, etc. Then I have a single bookcase in my office reserved for stellar examples of whatever genre I’m working in. As I’m currently thinking about what writing about art means or can look like, I’ve moved in books like Gilles Deleuze’s “Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation,” Eileen Myles’s “The Importance of Being Iceland: Travel Essays in Art” and Wayne Koestenbaum’s “Figure It Out,” to remind me of certain formal possibilities.

What do you plan to read next?

I’m between projects right now, which is a wondrous, enigmatic space in which I give myself permission to follow my instincts rather than map a territory. So, some random possibilities: “Primeval and Other Times,” by Olga Tokarczuk, “The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity,” by David Graeber and David Wengrow, “We Both Laughed in Pleasure: The Selected Diaries of Lou Sullivan, 1961-1991,” “Gallery of Clouds,” by Rachel Eisendrath, “Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis,” “Sigmar Polke: Alibis,” “The Freud Reader.”

What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?

A used but immaculate Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary must rank near the top. It cost $150 (I know because the price is written in pencil on the interior), and was given to me by someone who didn’t have much money at the time, so the generosity remains meaningful. I love its tissue-thin pages and illegibly small type that you have to read with the magnifying glass that comes with it in a little drawer. Kids love it too, even though now that we have the internet, no one really needs to read the O.E.D. this way anymore.

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