By Martha Kean
What makes the perfect summer read? I guess I’d normally say something plot-centric, a little bit trashy, interesting enough to keep you entertained but not too demanding to require any real use of your brain faculties. Crucially, it should be something long enough to last you a few days so you don’t have to enter into the between-book void mid-way through your holiday.
It might seem strange, then, that my summer read of choice this year is Maggie Nelson’s Bluets; a short 95-page rumination on the colour blue. The oddest part about Bluets’ position as my summer read of choice is that it is essentially a one hundred page ode to suffering – which, needless to say, doesn’t immediately shout ‘HOLIDAY READ’ at you from the shelf. But bear with me, as I think I can justify my choice.
The oddest part about Bluets‘ position as my summer read of choice is that it is essentially a one hundred page ode to suffering.
Here’s why I thought Bluets was perfection:
If you’ve ever read any of Nelson’s writing before, you’ll recognise her deeply captivating style in Bluets in an instant. The book is divided into 240 ‘propositions’ as Nelson calls them: short hybridised passages of poetry and prose; snippets of memories, philosophical musings, thoughts etc. It’s a deeply enticing way to read and process Nelson’s thoughts. The propositions aren’t arranged thematically or chronologically so the book becomes a bit like a patchwork quilt of text. The more you read, the more connections you make and the more meaning you derive from what you’ve already read: it’s a complete disruption of linear chronology. It’s the kind of book best appreciated when you have lots of time and space to reflect on it – and the summer is perfect for that.
- Beauty in sadness
I have been mocked in the past for deeming heart-wrenching art ‘uplifting’ (think the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale), so the same argument could probably be made against me here. Indeed, Nelson herself somewhat rejects the idea. ‘Mostly I have felt myself becoming a servant of sadness,’ she writes. ‘I am still looking for beauty in that’.
But I really did find Bluets to be a humbling and affirming read. There’s something incredibly special about channelling irreconcilable pain into writing – and that is palpable when reading Bluets. Of course, it’s not typically something you’d seek out in the summer, but summer 2021, despite our best efforts, has been anything but typical. Personally, having caught COVID in early July and spent the rest of the summer grappling with lingering (and somewhat debilitating) ill-health, I have had all too much time to sit around dwelling on the tumultuous past 15 months (and very little time to live my hot girl summer). Nelson offered me a means of vicariously processing and coming to terms with my own pain.
Bluets is a book about colour. It’s about seeing through colour, living through colour even. In this way, it’s a deeply sensory book. Not to be too self-indulgent here (though I do think the profoundly personal nature of Bluets warrants an equally personal response), but Nelson’s acute focus on colour and seeing was a welcome invitation for me to temporarily redefine my way of interacting with the world when I had no sense of smell or taste. Anyone who’s experienced it will know that losing two of five senses has the veritable effect of closing in your life. I was reading Bluets on holiday in Cornwall and rather than dwelling on what I was lacking, I started to delight in what was abundant around me; conveniently, that was the colour blue. I spent longer than usual staring into the ocean and up at the sky. Bluets doesn’t suggest that a colour can guarantee any one meaning, emotion or response but it opens up the notion that colour can encompass everything. Gazing at the Atlantic ocean whilst reading Bluets made me feel a sense of the possibility of a colour at a time when I felt an overwhelming sense of impotence in other respects.
Bluets is about loss but it’s also about love. The love of a colour, the beauty that makes pain bearable, the beauty of pain – I’d love to say I picked it up in anticipation of all this. Truthfully, I chose it thinking its cover would match my beach aesthetic. Either way, I’m so grateful I stumbled across it: it was an unconventional summer read and it was perfect for an unconventional summer.
Photo: Martha Kean.