Reality Reading: Bluets by Maggie Nelson

[‘Reality Reading’ is a series focused on books recommended by writer David Shields (Reality Hunger: A Manifesto). These books have been referenced favorably in either his controversial new book, in person (at his March 2010 appearance at the Brookline Booksmith), or in the many interviews that Shields has given in his ongoing quest to declare the death of the novel and champion the emergence of a “new prose,” one that defies tradition and convention in an attempt to give the reader something of greater substance, such as, among other things, clearer insight into the human condition, or a more accurate depiction of the culture we belong to today. He would hate that last sentence (see: Reality Hunger, pages 126-130, “in praise of brevity”). For an introduction to Shields’ compelling literary theory see: his brief summary at The Millions, as well as his joint Bookworm interview with Ander Monson, author of Vanishing Point: Not A Memoir, reviewed very favorably by Shields here.]

Maggie Nelson’s Bluets is a gorgeous examination of the color, and feeling, blue. It’s a literary collage work that takes the form of 240 numbered, scattered-but-connected observations, as short as a sentence or as long as a paragraph.

The primary focus of the book-length (95 pages) essay, of sorts, is the color blue and Nelson’s odd affection for it. The book also addresses an accident that left Nelson’s friend paralyzed from the waist down, as well as the memory of a failed relationship. Nelson’s friend, and former lover (“the prince of blue”) are each emblematic of the pain that Nelson spends the essay writing about.

I’m finding it difficult to write about why, exactly, I loved this book so much. Maybe this exasperation, this literal speechlessness, is what Shields thinks ‘Reality Reads’ are capable of, moreso than the traditional novel. He may be onto something. I did find myself stopping, many times, during Bluets to consider how Nelson’s words affected me. I still don’t understand how, but her observations about the color blue made for very introspective reading. This process of self-examination is one of Shield’s key points about ‘Reality Reading,’ and with Bluets, as with Halls of Fame before it, I found myself frequently turning from the page to my heart, my soul, my sense of “self.”

I read Bluets in one long sitting. Reading it wouldn’t have taken so long if I didn’t spend so much time between sentences appreciating their song. Nelson writes of loneliness, love, and pain better than most other writers I’ve ever read (and I’ve only read this one, slim book of hers!). As I neared the end, I knew I wanted to read it again, and again, and again. I want to memorize passages, and re-write them in my own blue book. I want to create a chronology of her relationship with “the prince of blue,” and the life of her paraplegic friend. I want to know them, and I want to know Maggie Nelson. Or, I should say, know her better, for Bluets, with its deeply personal subject matter, is as real an introduction to Maggie Nelson the person as it is to Maggie Nelson the writer.

Next “Reality Read”: Vanishing Point: Not A Memoir by Ander Monson.

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4 Responses to Reality Reading: Bluets by Maggie Nelson

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