"The Argonauts" by Maggie Nelson

I am deep in the Summer of Reading, and having a great time reading through my TBR shelves and piles that seem to grow faster than I can read them. I struggled with Marie Kondo's The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up because of how she discussed books (I guess she recanted this later, maybe on her TV show). Her insistence that no one needs to have a ton of books, just a shelf or two of special books, because you don't re-read books and any book that you haven't read 3 months after you've bought it will never be read. 


I love going back into my TBR books and finding something that I purchased or was gifted YEARS ago. 

One of those books is Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts, which I bought at Parnassus Books in Nashville while visiting a friend three years ago. We'd swapped lists of favorite books we'd read, and this was one from hers. 

The book is slim, which misrepresents the time it takes to read it. It's a book you have to read slowly, savor, reread passages, think on, and then continue reading. It has parts that are written in a highly academic style that analyze art or philosophy, but the whole book is a love letter to her family. Namely, Harry, her nonbinary spouse, Iggy, their child conceived with donor sperm, and the simultaneous bodily transformations of Maggie as she navigates both getting pregnant and then the whole pregnancy, birth, and postpartum shifts, and Harry as Harry gets top surgery and testosterone injections to be able to live more freely. Maggie explores motherhood, aging, transformations, love, queerness, what it means to write your life, what it means to truly be there for a person... there's SO MUCH in this slim volume, written in short vignettes with no chapters, no parts, no delineation other than a single line of space. 

These were quotes that stood out to me: 

You think I'm not worried too? Of course I'm worried. What I don't need is your worry on top of mine. I need your support. (Nelson, 52)

This is Harry, responding to Maggie's worries about the effect of T (testosterone treatment) on Harry's body and overall health. It's a great response when someone is worrying out of love but it is the last thing you need to hear when you're going through something difficult, or taking a path that you know has risks but also has tremendous benefits. 


Flipping channels on a different day, we landed on a reality TV show featuring a breast cancer patient recovering from a double mastectomy. It was uncanny to watch her performing the same actions we were performing -- emptying her drains, waiting patiently for her unbinding -- but with opposite emotions. You felt unburdened, euphoric, reborn; the woman on TV feared, wept, and grieved. (Nelson, 82)

This really made me think on experiences that are similar but with widely different context. I'll never forget when I wrote a post during my quest for parenthood and I was done with using my body towards the goal, but my body wasn't done with abusing me. I said that I wished I could just go through early menopause and be done with it, and a commenter excoriated me because she was going through early menopause and it was robbing her of everything, and she was in her early thirties (I was in my early forties), and she was SO ANGRY that I could have looked at menopause like a freedom. But to me, it would have been, in my mind at least. And when I had my hysterectomy at 42, to me it was finally that freedom. Freedom from a part of my body that only caused me pain, freedom from periods whose only purpose were to show fertility but that was never the case for me, freedom from being a failed reproductive entity. But then you have people who have to have a hysterectomy and it's due to cancer, or an emergency, or other health concern, and that same surgery is not a freeing exercise but a horrible, horrible loss. The context is different. The fact that the uterus is removed is the same, but the emotions are vastly disparate.


This little boy lived by the maxim that if you could imagine the worst thing that could ever happen, you would never be surprised when it did. Not knowing that this maxim was the very definition of anxiety, as given by Freud ("'Anxiety' describes a particular state of expecting the danger or preparing for it, even though it may be an unknown one"), I set to work cultivating it. (Nelson, 118-119)

That is a great definition of anxiety. It made me laugh out loud, because it meant that this has always been a part of me -- I have ALWAYS been a catastrophizer, a worst-case-scenario-imaginer. I actually used to say in high school that "I would rather be pleasantly surprised than bitterly disappointed," and so would always think the worst would happen. Because if it didn't, yay! and if it did, well, I saw it coming. I am still working on this. To see things for their opportunities more than their challenges. To have Bryce take longer than usual to get back from a walk and when he doesn't text me back right away, and think "He must be enjoying his walk on this beautiful day" and not "OHMYGOD HE'S DEADINADITCH, SOMEONE HIT AND RAN HIM, EVERYTHING IS ABOUT TO CHANGE, AAAAAAAAA." I go straight to the disaster. I don't always know what the disaster is, I just know it's coming. I really have to get better at managing that (although since school has ended and my medication has evened out at the higher dose, I am not feeling fight-or-flight all the time, which is lovely). 


Thank you for showing me what a nuptial might be -- an infinite conversation, an endless becoming. (Nelson, Acknowledgements)

I love this description of a relationship, of a marriage. Especially "an endless becoming." Who you become as yourself, who your person becomes, and who you become together. That give-and-take of conversation. God I love this quote.

I recommend this book in all its brutally raw and honest glory. Caveats: it can be sexually explicit, but not gratuitous; there's also a very detailed description of labor and birth. It's such a great thinking book, one that will possibly stretch your thoughts on identity.


  1. I've just put a hold on this book at my library. You had me at "... a book you have to read slowly, savor, reread passages, think on, and then continue reading."

    I am loving the quotes you've shared - there are at least three different blog posts for each one! I'll refrain from writing them here! lol

    1. Right? It's such a beauty to find a book that makes you stop and think and then think some more. So much to take from it! And yes, such blog post fodder. I hope you enjoy it!

  2. Marie Kondo & I do NOT agree on books either!! I've gotten better about occasionally pruning my shelves (to make room for more new books, lol) -- but ONE OR TWO shelves?! Is she nuts??!!