Book Review: Bluets by Maggie Nelson



by Maggie Nelson




In her 2015 article on Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts, Olivia Laing wrote that "The Nelsonian unit of thought is not the chapter but the paragraph, a mode that allows for deep swerves and juxtapositions, for the interspersing of anecdote and analysis." That was true for The Argonauts, but it hits even closer to home in the case of Bluets. The book, not even a hundred pages long, is split in 240 numbered paragraphs (the titular "bluets"), which range from just 20-30 words to a full page at most. Each of them contains a thought that can stand alone as a contemplation on the color blue.

The crux of the book is a meditation on Nelson's love for the color, an examination of other people who have been fascinated by it through the decades and centuries, with references to Plato, Wittgenstein, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen (the latter being the biggest selling point for me when I bought the book). Nelson has enveloped this core idea in a layer of narrative consisting of a quasi-epistolary reflection on a past relationship. Thus, the language and shift between academic and personal is reminiscent of The Argonauts.

Something that really struck me was the amount of literature available on such a simple subject as the color blue. Initially I was intrigued when I read the blurb for Bluets, as I thought that it was a new and fascinating topic to dedicate an albeit short book to. You can measure Nelson’s love for the color simply by the pages of research she has done over the years. It ranges from a seemingly simple consideration of the physical qualities of blue from an optical point of view, to the much more complex and intriguing question of a number of prominent thinkers turning to the subject of this color during the late stages of their careers, abandoning more “important” questions that usually engage the philosophical mind like morality and religion. The most interesting bluets come after a series of thoughts on a particular thinker, or a particular memory from her relationship with this unnamed lover, where Nelson fuses the two together in one paragraph, which is one in a string of paragraphs that acts as the unifying thread through the book. Here are a couple of my favorite bluets to give you a sense of what it looks like.

A warm afternoon in early spring, New York City. We went to the Chelsea Hotel to fuck. Afterward, from the window of our room, I watched blue tarp in a roof across the way flap in the wind. You slept, so it was my secret. It was a smear of the quotidian, a bright blue flake amidst all the dank providence. It was the only time I came. It was essentially our lives. It was shaking.
— Maggie Nelson (Bluet 18)
I want you to know, if you ever read this, there was a time when I would rather have had you by my side than any one of these words; I would rather have had you by my side than all the blue in the world.
— Maggie Nelson (Bluet 238)

I have always been very fond of the color blue myself, and there were times in the book when I felt compelled to line up all my blue possessions and scout for more items to join the lineup. That feeling was inevitably followed by another feeling; a feeling that Nelson has claimed dominion over all things blue now, and that perhaps I should be one of her field agents and send her my blue items instead.

As she is quick to point out herself, blue is the most beloved color worldwide, so her claim is not exclusive. In that way, it is a very generous book, and if you liked The Argonauts, you’ll most certainly love Bluets.



BA English Literature, MSc Publishing. Passionate about contemporary literature, noir comics, beautifully shot films, and whiskies that are old enough to order their own whiskies. Can bore you to death with La La Land songs, Hollywood trivia, George Carlin references, and extensive knowledge on Leonard Cohen.