Maggie Nelson: TOP TEN BOOKS


Courtesy of Tom Atwood

Author and poet Maggie Nelson finds herself among 2016’s MacArthur Genius Grant recipients after writing nine books (five non-fiction and four poetry), including 2015’s New York Times bestseller The Argonauts, which also won a National Book Critics Award in criticism. In The Argonauts, which details the love story between Nelson and her husband, gender-fluid artist Harry Dodge, Nelson further humanizes the trans experience. As she told The Guardian, “I like to think that what literature can do that op-ed pieces and other communications don’t do is describe felt experience, the flickering, bewildered places that people actually inhabit.” Nelson currently teaches in the CalArts MFA writing program.

Below are Maggie Nelson’s favorite books, available to purchase as a set or individually.


Collected Works

Lorine Niedecker
Niedecker lived most of her life in Blackhawk Island, a remote and marshy setting in Wisconsin, where she scrubbed hospital floors and cared for her deaf mother while writing some of the most quixotic, minimalist, moving poems of the 20th century. I know many by heart, like this one: “My friend tree / I sawed you down / but I must attend / an older friend / the sun,” but I still wouldn’t want to be without the hard copy.
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Paul Celan
This book brought me to poetry; I could never read it enough. Celan’s poems are a radiant reminder of the most desolate events that can attend humankind (i.e. the Holocaust, suicidal despair) and its most resplendent features (the near mystical possibilities of poetic language, of intimacy). “Single counter- / swimmer, you / count them, touch them / all.’”
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The Golden Bowl

Henry James
I adore Henry James and yet freely admit to never having made it all the way through this one. I have a strong suspicion something truly critical to my life lies in the last 50 pages, and if I were alone with it on a desert island, I would finally find out.
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The Selected Poems of T'ao Ch'ien

translated by David Hinton
Another book that brought me to poetry, and which never seems to get old (and this despite the fact that T’ao Ch’ien lived from 365 – 427 C.E.). I consider T’ao Ch’ien a calm, necessary friend holding out a hand across time: “A thousand years may be beyond me, / but I can turn this morning into forever.”
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Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America

Saidiya Hartman,
Hartman eschews a focus on the more well-known, violent scenes of American racial subjugation to focus on the terrors and inequities that structured (and still structure) the slavery-to-emancipation period and narrative. A critical book for anyone aiming to understand how unfreedom masquerades as freedom.
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The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study

Stefano Harney and Fred Moten
A series of co-written essays that set into motion expansive, mutinous, timely concepts, such as study, debt, surround, planning and the shipped. A difficult, beautiful, vertiginous, fortifying and enlivening piece of work that somehow makes the contemporary world, with all its horrors, seem worth being born into and living in, together.
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For the Time Being

Annie Dillard
Birth defects, ancient Chinese terra cotta figures, the history of clouds, burning questions about suffering, numbers, evil, and time — this strange gem of a book has it all. Each category of thought is a portal, and its structure is a thing of unfolding beauty.
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Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration

David Wojnarowicz
Published just before he died of AIDS, Wojnarowicz’s memoir is a classic of outlaw literature and political fury. Wojnarowicz — who was a great artist as well as writer — wheels through his wickedly difficult childhood, the deaths of friends and lovers, great sex writing, thoughts about art, screeds against the likes of Jesse Helms, all the while facing down his own imminent demise. It’s sad, funny, angry and transporting, a kaleidoscope on fire.
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To The Lighthouse

Virginia Woolf
As far as the modernists go, this is neck and neck with Beckett for number ten (that’s cheating, I know), but Woolf must win. Like Baldwin, Woolf has made many a top 10 list, but again, there’s a reason: I know of no more gut-wrenching, soaring prose about shared consciousness, mortality and water. Truly a book for the cradle to the grave.
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The Fire Next Time

James Baldwin
I know, I know, it’s made it onto a lot of lists. But there’s simply no substitute for this model of lucidity and complexity, the virtues of thinking out loud, and ethical, literary and autobiographical inquiry.
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