Nathan Knapp at The Quarterly Conversation:
One wonders what Sontag would’ve made of Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments, which appears on first blush to be almost entirely made up of aphorisms. Manguso, who at the age of 42 has already published seven books including this one, published her first book of poetry, The Captainlands in Paradise at age 28. Since following that book up two years later with another collection of poetry, all of her books have been prose. Two years ago she published Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, which was quite literally an exercise in “notebook-thinking”: the book was a meditation on her diaries, which she had at that point kept for 25 years and totaled more than 800,000 words. Her book on this massive document ran to a mere 144 pages. “Write as short as you can,” wrote John Berryman in an early Dream Song (and proceeded to publish 385 of them).
300 Arguments takes Berryman’s advice quite literally. Any worry brought on by the volume implied by the numerousness of the book’s title is allayed by the brevity of its page count (90 pages). The physical book itself, pocket-sized and filled with large print, comes with a set of instructions, printed as an unattributed blurb (it is from Manguso herself) on the back of the Graywolf paperback edition: “Think of this as a short book composed entirely of what I hoped would be a long book’s quotable passages,” a command not issued inside the book until nearly two-thirds of the way through. One wonders if Graywolf was worried that readers approaching the book without any prior information as to its structure might be confused, or irritated that they had not purchased a more conventional book of either nonfiction or poetry. Manguso is certainly no stranger to the prescriptive voice. In an essay published two years ago she advised would-be writers to “Be relentless,” to “Learn to live on air,” to “Stay healthy; sickness is a waste of time and money,” to “Avoid all messy and needy people including family,” not to smoke, not to drink, not to have a gym membership, not to “give favors to people or institutions that lack authority or consequence,” to “learn graciously to decline,” to “be kind to everyone you meet,” to “become tempered by life,” and to make “compromises for love”.