Eula Biss felt an incredible sense of panic after the traumatic birth of her first son. It’s the type of panic that many mothers feel. How do we protect our children from the threats of the world? Threats of lead paint, tainted water, and especially viruses. Essentially, how do we inoculate them? To work through this anxiety, Biss wrote. Her book “On Immunity: An Inoculation” picks apart the metaphors rooted in the deeply held fears and skepticisms of vaccines.
In a similar vein, Eula Biss recommends "The Argonauts," another book born out of a pregnancy. In it, author Maggie Nelson writes through her pregnancy while her partner, Harry Dodge, begins to transition with testosterone injections and a double mastectomy. Nelson asks questions that bend conventions about gender, sexuality, motherhood, family and identity itself. As a result, the book defies genre in a way that even Eula Biss finds hard to fully describe.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
I would love to recommend "The Argonauts" by Maggie Nelson. This is an extraordinary book. Very difficult to classify and hard to describe in the way that I think all the best books are hard to describe. Books that I really love, I struggle to describe in part because I don't want to flatten them out in my description. And almost anything I can say about "The Argonauts" will flatten it, but it's part memoir, part philosophical treatise, I guess.
The main character, of course, is Maggie Nelson, who over the course of the book becomes pregnant and gives birth and begins raising a young child. The other character is her partner and lover, Harry Dodge, the artist. And over the course of this book, Harry transitions in some ways from female to male. But there's a great quote where he says, "I'm not on my way anywhere." His insistence is not on becoming a man after having been a woman, but on being kind of neither and both.
This is a really important part of the philosophical examination of the book is: what it means to allow yourself to dwell in a space between. Maggie Nelson really celebrates this in between-ness or both-ness — the "and" rather than the "but" — through the entire book. It's a book that examines queer identity, and in some ways identity in general. How we think about ourselves.
What I love about the book is that it offers an attitude that I think is a beautiful attitude to try on and be inside for a while. It's an attitude towards the self, but an attitude towards a world that's... I think the best description of it is just deeply generous. Reading this book made me come out the other side feeling better about myself and the world, which is not how I always feel after I finish reading a book that I love.
But this book was truly happy-making, in part because part of what Maggie Nelson is doing in this book, in "The Argonauts," is giving herself permission to be happy.
And I think that we forget sometimes that we need to do that. That we need to give ourselves permission.