300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso doesn’t look like much of a book, but the slim, blue volume contains heavy truths on its 90 pages:
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“Perfect happiness is the privilege of deciding when things end. But then you have to find a new happiness.”
“The trouble with letting people see you at your worst isn’t that they’ll remember; it’s that you’ll remember.”
Like a literary shot of espresso, Manguso’s brief tidbits of wisdom and humor serve as a wake-up call. It's an unusual -- but also enlightening -- work ideal for those who prefer to read in short bursts.
We asked the seven-time author how this genre-defying tome originated.
City Pages: Has anyone suggested a similarity to tweets? My initial impression of the book was, “These are the best tweets I’ve ever read.”
Sarah Manguso: I’m not on Twitter myself, but I do check in on certain people’s feeds. There are people on Twitter who are really using the form brilliantly. I’m not on Twitter because I’m not a quick or casual writer. It takes a great deal of effort from an editor to peel a manuscript away from my claw-like grasp. I’m just grateful that there are writers who can do that, who just delight me daily, who always have something new on the feed.
I’ve mentioned this in one other interview, but whenever anybody asks me about Twitter, there is kind of a sepia-toned memory for me because the founder of Twitter was my sixth-grade crush.
CP: No way!
SM: Yeah. He was very popular in the mid-'80s, and I guess he only grew to become more popular.
CP: Did you know when you started that you were writing aphorisms, or is that something you concluded later?
SM: I can’t quite bring myself to use the word “aphorism” to describe all of the units -- or whatever they are -- in this book. The reason that I chose the word “argument” to describe them was it seemed more flexible and capacious than “aphorism,” which suggests that there’s a kind of received wisdom.
I was tip-toeing through the dictionary before I even conceived of these as an actual book. I came upon the word “argument,” and I collected these current and antiquated definitions of the word. I was really pleased by this short list: subject, theme, fight, mark, token, proof, hint, plot, declaration, evidence, burden, complaint, accusation, denouncement, and betrayal. So with all of those nouns in the mix, I felt like it was okay to include things like anecdote, manifesto, a joke, a little bit of myth, something I overheard in a café, and I didn’t have to account for them as I think I would have had to had I called the book “aphorisms.”
CP: Do you believe that all of these arguments are true or are some of them meant to be purely provocative?
SM: I don’t know if all of them are true, but I definitely believed them all at the time [that I wrote them].
CP: Can I read a few of the arguments to you and have you tell me any back story related to them?
SM: Oh, sure. That’d be fun.
CP: “For a little attention, complain a little. For a lot of attention, stop complaining.”
SM: Hmm... this is one of the ones that I think sounds as if it comes from experience, but it doesn’t come from my experience. This is more an observance that I’ve made of people that I admire.
CP: How about: “Happiness begins to deteriorate once it is named.”
SM: I think one of the larger problems that I was trying to write my way out of in this book was the experience of writing at a point in one’s chronological life that cannot be recognized as anything but “the middle.” I hesitate to say this is my “mid-life crisis book” or that it’s about mid-life, because that just makes people think about guys and sports cars and women going through menopause and coloring their hair, which is not really what I was writing about. But there is this knee-jerk, almost unavoidable practice when this mid-life feeling arises and it’s this tendency to try to calculate one’s degree of happiness. Until you define that abstract noun in a particular way, it doesn’t really mean anything.
It’s impossible for me to think about the word “happiness” as it refers to my actual experience of the world without getting a little nervous. What if I did it all wrong and I’m not happy? What if this is happiness? What if this is as good as it gets? I don’t feel that good! For me, some of that worry I could just trace to the problem of calling things “happiness” or wondering whether this is happiness. If only I could avoid that word, I think all my thoughts and feelings and decisions and desires and worries wouldn’t feel quite so dire.
CP: One more: “You might as well start by confessing your greatest shame. Anything else would just be exposition.”
SM: This is the second one in the book. The reason I wanted to put it on the first page was I wanted to make sure I remembered it. In the last 20 years or so of trying to write things down, I’ve had so many ideas about what would be a good itinerary to explore any one subject, and every time, the original plan is not the plan that was at all fruitful or interesting or useful. After I got through all of these great intentions and started excavating the biggest feeling – “the greatest shame” – that’s when these works started. And I still need to be reminded of this rule: Just find the shame. Dig into the shame. That’s the only place that I’ve been able to find useful material.
IF YOU GO:
Sarah Manguso discusses 300 Arguments
Magers & Quinn Booksellers
7 p.m. Friday, April 28
Magers & Quinn Booksellers