300 Arguments should be required reading for all those experiencing crises of confidence and the otherwise deleterious effects of the human condition.
Given her background in poetry and creative writing, it’s little surprise Sarah Manguso’s writing style lends itself well to an effortless sort of poeticism that allows for maximum impact via minimal words. In her previous books, Manguso acted as fairly straightforward memoirist, recalling her own illness – a rare autoimmune disease – in detail in The Two Kinds of Decay and chronicling the loss of a close friend in The Guardians: An Elegy for a Friend. For her latest, Manguso again returns the focus to herself, this time in the form of short aphorisms that often read more as poetry than prose.
Alternately insightful, humorous and thought-provoking, her 300 Arguments offers enough variety, depth and substance to range from the deeply personal to the universally relatable. Offering a unique perspective on the world via these 300 seemingly random thoughts, Manguso is at once an armchair philosopher, frustrated writer, keener observer of the human condition and sly comedienne. Because of this, it’s nearly impossible to write about her writing without relying heavily on it for reference and examples of its subtle brilliance: “A great photographer insists on writing poems. A brilliant essayist insists on writing novels. A singer with a voice like an angel insists on singing only her own, terrible songs. So when people tell me I should try to write this or that thing I don’t want to write, I know what they mean.”
Composed entirely of similarly-styled entries, 300 Arguments requires the reader to revisit each time and again, taking in each and every word to glean the full significance of the seemingly simple sentiment conveyed by Manguso. And because of this, each individual’s take-away from these brief thoughts will varying wildly depending on personality, experience and ability to relate. Where many are universally applicable to the basic human condition, there are others than only those who have experienced a similar set of thoughts or feelings will be able to fully grasp. “The trouble with letting people see you at your worst isn’t that they’ll remember; it’s that you’ll remember.”
Despite its seemingly fragmentary approach, the whole of 300 Arguments paints a vivid, intimately nuanced portrait of its author in the way few long-form essays manage. Rather than using extraneous words, ideas and imagery to make her point, Manguso distills the essence of each piece into a handful of highly impactful words. “Certainty is the opposite of thinking; I’m certain of it,” she writes, managing more in those ten words than many can muster in hundreds. It’s this deceptively complex simplicity that makes 300 Arguments such an impressive, short work.
“Everyone considers some part of his own life a universally applicable model, and I’m no exception,” she writes. And yet despite the self-deprecating tone present here and throughout much of the rest of the book, there’s an unspoken mutual understanding of the truth inherent in these types of sentiments. Because of this, 300 Arguments feels endlessly relatable, Manguso’s plainspoken prose getting to the heart of the human condition with an intelligence and humor that often masks the cavernous sadness and melancholy underlying many of the entries.
Because of its seemingly fractured structuring and apparent lack of narrative cohesion, 300 Arguments may initially come across as little more than a collection of abstract thoughts and musings laid to paper in the moment. Yet when taken as a whole they manage to present a surprisingly detailed picture of Manguso as a person. Possessing the same myriad flaws inherent in all of us, Manguso manages to put into so few words that which often best describes our inner struggles, personal failures, social shortcomings and existential concerns. 300 Arguments is written in a way that Manguso’s voice, while distinctly her own, becomes just as easily and convincingly that of the universal everyman/woman. 300 Arguments should be required reading for all those experiencing crises of confidence and the otherwise deleterious effects of the human condition.