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On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint (Paperback)

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On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint By Maggie Nelson Cover Image
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Staff Reviews

Selected as a Best Nonfiction Book of the Year 2021 by Bookshop staff:
Only Maggie Nelson could knit together the lexicon of “freedom” with references from academics, writers, and activists in such alluring fashion. This piece is perennial while being timely with the recent adoption of the word “freedom” by authoritarian and right-wing ideologies. She guides the reader along the passageways of freedom and its negative (through paradoxically sometimes truer interpretation) “unfreedom,” through art, sex, drugs, and climate.

— Celeste

September 2021 Indie Next List

“I have long anticipated Maggie Nelson’s newest work and On Freedom does not disappoint. Who doesn’t want to know her thoughts on art, sex, drugs, and climate?”
— Dartricia Rollins, Charis Books & More, Atlanta, GA


Named a Most Anticipated/Best Book of the Month by: NPR * USA Today * Time * Washington Post * Vulture * Women’s Wear Daily * Bustle * LitHub * The Millions * Vogue * Nylon * Shondaland * Chicago Review of Books * The Guardian * Los Angeles Times * Kirkus * Publishers Weekly

So often deployed as a jingoistic, even menacing rallying cry, or limited by a focus on passing moments of liberation, the rhetoric of freedom both rouses and repels. Does it remain key to our autonomy, justice, and well-being, or is freedom’s long star turn coming to a close? Does a continued obsession with the term enliven and emancipate, or reflect a deepening nihilism (or both)? On Freedom examines such questions by tracing the concept’s complexities in four distinct realms: art, sex, drugs, and climate.

Drawing on a vast range of material, from critical theory to pop culture to the intimacies and plain exchanges of daily life, Maggie Nelson explores how we might think, experience, or talk about freedom in ways responsive to the conditions of our day. Her abiding interest lies in ongoing “practices of freedom” by which we negotiate our interrelation with—indeed, our inseparability from—others, with all the care and constraint that entails, while accepting difference and conflict as integral to our communion.

For Nelson, thinking publicly through the knots in our culture—from recent art-world debates to the turbulent legacies of sexual liberation, from the painful paradoxes of addiction to the lure of despair in the face of the climate crisis—is itself a practice of freedom, a means of forging fortitude, courage, and company. On Freedom is an invigorating, essential book for challenging times.

About the Author

Maggie Nelson is a poet, critic, and award-winning author of 'The Argonauts', 'Bluets', 'The Art of Cruelty', 'Jane: A Murder' and 'The Red Parts'. She lives in Los Angeles, California.

Praise For…

“On Freedom is ultimately a book that asks us to boldly and generously enter the minefield, to pick up what we find useful, to be pushed and provoked, to polish and discard and reinvent, and then to decide, alone and, ideally, in communion, where to go next.”—The Washington Post

“[A] sense of optimism sits at the heart of On Freedom. What else is possible? it asks. . . . On Freedom is an argument for how we engage with objects of analysis—and one another—in a way that is principled but not rigid, that displays care for other people’s perceptions, pains and desires, and that has respect for what we cannot know.”—Ismail Muhammad, New York Times Magazine

“In discussion after discussion, Nelson shows the same alertness to context, intellectual modesty and the conviction that ethical goodness is never all on one side. . . .“[On Freedom] doesn’t aim to provide a positive account of the meaning of freedom. But if we understand freedom, above all, through our opposition to bondage, we can learn a great deal, as her book shows, from carefully cataloging and challenging the many ways of being unfree.” —Kwame Anthony Appiah, The New York Times Book Review

“Precise and atmospheric, combining fierce intellectual kick with an openness to nuance....[Nelson asks] how to live in a world with crushing oppression, alongside people with cruel and violent beliefs, without giving into despair or violence yourself.”—Annalisa Quinn, NPR

“A meditative and potent examination of freedom. . . . Combining thoughtful cultural criticism with anecdotes from her personal life, Nelson delivers an intriguing work of nonfiction that seeks to challenge readers’ definition of freedom and rethink how the concept operates in our lives.”—TIME

“One of our most radical and forward-looking thinkers. . . . A tremendously energising book.”—Lara Fiegel, The Guardian

“Nelson finds playfulness—and fertility—in thorny territory. She explores identity, contradiction, violence, taboo. . . . All her books are united by the same curiosity, the same willingness for intellectual and linguistic exploration.”—Financial Times Magazine

“While her intellect is the driving force of On Freedom, Nelson decenters herself to build a canon of radical thought with reference to artists and thinkers too numerous to name here. . . . In defense of what should be obvious—we are beholden to each other and the planet that sustains us—Nelson encourages readers to examine 'how we negotiate, suffer, and dance with that enmeshment,' therein finding meaning, purpose and joy in an age of justifiable anxiety.”—Kristen Millares Young, The Washington Post

“As ever, Nelson’s probing inquiry sits on equal footing with her effortlessly fluid prose, which moves between first-person, anecdotal stories and intense critical examination with the utmost readability. Ultimately Nelson’s approach is one that seeks liberation and transcendence, whether sexual, narcotic, or purely biological—something that radiates palpably from her writing, even when she delves into some of the darkest corners of the human psyche.”—

“Maggie Nelson is one of America's leading intellectuals, and her brilliant collection, On Freedom, is a must-read for anyone who wants to deconstruct the most urgent social debates of the day.”Oprah Daily, Best Books of 2021

“Each essay is thought-provoking and incisive, deepening the complexity and contradictions inherent to our experience of freedom and, simultaneously laying them bare. I haven’t stopped thinking about One Freedom, and I am not certain I ever will."—Catherine Whelan, NPR Best Books of 2021

“Nelson’s brainy, affecting, genre-crossing books have earned her a deserved reputation as a sui generis amalgam of poet, memoirist, theorist and critic. This provocative meditation on the ethics of freedom as a source of constraint, as well as liberation, shows her at her most original and brilliant.”The New York Times, 100 Notable Books of 2021

"Considering the 'freedom drive' in four realms—art, sex, drugs and the climate crisis—Nelson devotes an expansive essay to each, exploring how notions of liberation and limitation collide.”—The Washington Post, Best Nonfiction of 2021

“A deep, thoughtful dive into our modern-day concepts of personal liberty. . . . Nelson’s newest offering is a must-read.”—Bustle

“Rather than define freedom in exact terms or declare what it is for, Nelson moves through knots of ideology on freedom via 'songs' of art, sex, drugs, and climate, drawing conclusions . . . that obliterate the binary of freedom vs. constraint. . . . On Freedom proves that Nelson continues to do us a great service as a critic, which is to herself digest, and sometimes wrestle with, copious amounts of literature and theory . . . and to integrate this material into a relatively short book, in an accessible, felicitous voice all Nelson’s own. There are no hot takes in On Freedom. While hot takes are satisfying, they rarely finish the job. If you want to get your hands around something as vast and slippery as freedom, you are going to have to get comfortable moving through an ideological briar patch. On Freedom offers navigation tips, but Nelson’s call to action is a journey that readers must take on their own."—The Boston Globe

“A necessary book. . . . Of astonishing cultural significance and among the finest writing of her career. . . . [On Freedom] is a generous guide that maps for us practical anarchies outside of and beyond our present culture’s imagination while encouraging us to continue to live in conversation with them. . . . In this latest accomplishment, Maggie Nelson invites us back into a world that is miraculous, unresolved, and imperfect—one that is real; one that is ours.”—The Brooklyn Rail

"On Freedom is the welcome return of Maggie Nelson, this time tackling the uses, misuses and briars of meaning around an idea that a lot of people easily define but rarely follow through to uncomfortable, contradictory ends. Nelson once again—as she has with cruelty, pregnancy, loneliness—collapses a mountain of thought into a digestible argument that leaves you feeling just a bit smarter."—Chicago Tribune

“The trick to Maggie Nelson—the reason she is adored as an essayist—is that she is fearless in her choice of topics and scrupulously open-minded in exploring them. So it goes with this book divided into four different realms of 'freedom' (art, sex, drugs and climate), which sets out to reclaim America’s most abused word and concept—and succeeds.”—Los Angeles Times

"In her new collection, the acclaimed essayist and cultural critic takes up our 24/7 attention cycle, the complexities of the #MeToo movement and other topics, examining the ways our newfound 'freedoms' create their own burdens, opportunities and expectations."—Los Angeles Times

“One of the literary world’s foremost cultural critics and essay writers returns with this staggering work. . . . On Freedom takes [Nelson's] work to yet another level of approachable complexity. It is, without a doubt, one of the year’s best, most timely, and necessary books.”—Shondaland

"A refreshing, daring consideration of our most tangled social problems. . . . It is unapologetic in its acknowledgement of what it means to actually think—really, truly think—about culture and all the uncertainty that entails. . . . We urgently need more of this 'thinking aloud with others,' just as we urgently need more of Maggie Nelson’s measured, empathetic analysis."—Washington Independent Review of Books

“A volume of literary philosophy that's no less blazing [than The Argonauts]: provocative essays about the 'felt complexities' and 'patient labor' of personal and political liberation.”—Oprah Quarterly

“Nelson . . . has a unique penchant for weaving critical theory and pop culture with the personal. Her singular literary approach is on display in her latest.”—WWD

“Throughout [On Freedom], [Nelson’s] sensitivity and emotional presence soften the hyperintellectual, almost academic quality of her writing. She leads with feeling, exploring what she calls 'the joys and pains of our inescapable relation.'”—Vulture

“Part of what makes her writing so compelling is a comfort with uncertainty. . . The section on climate change is, to my mind, the most edifying. . . . Here Nelson wrestles with the key question of our time: how to cope with the overwhelming reality of climate change without being paralyzed into inaction. It is unanswerable, of course, but her articulation of the predicament is a salve in itself. . . . It is a delight to spend time with Nelson's erudite mind.”—Times Literary Supplement

“Happiness as empathic altruism could justifiably define the affective spirit, breadth, and generosity underpinning Maggie Nelson’s On Freedom. . . . On Freedom is the work of a public intellectual—a sustained, uncompromisingly even-handed meditation on the barbed cultural and political debates around personal freedom and interdependence in the spheres of art, sex, drugs, and climate. . . . Nelson has a vast capacity to embrace and 'hold' the contradictions of difficult art. This critical compassion is one of her great strengths.”—4Columns

“Maggie Nelson’s books crack your heart open on a marble countertop and piece it back together, but not before you’ve thought critically about your entire life. Her writing leaves you smarter, even if it sometimes contains truths that are hard to swallow.”—NYLON

"In exploring weighty issues related to art, sex, drugs, and climate change, Nelson offers her own ideas around what real freedom might look like. Many of the hallmarks of her style are on display here . . . [and] she gets pointed as well, especially when unpacking timely topics like cancel culture and consent."—The A.V. Club

"Accessible critical theory from a verified genius."—Lit Hub

“What Nelson has penned in On Freedom is a mighty hymn to context and subtlety, another much-needed celebration of the motley, ungovernable, transgressive and possible. And approached as a symposium–a grand chorus–each of On Freedom’s component essays invites (perhaps demands) participation. They welcome dissent. That’s the rare and precious pleasure of Nelson’s work, her generosity.”—The Australian

“Nelson’s freedom songs are contrapuntal and choral, attending to knotty questions. . . . If these are songs, they are jazz-like, stripped of the linear melody that strings together the love poem that is The Argonauts. For a writer of Nelson’s powers, this stepping back from centering the ‘I’ isn’t accidental. On Freedom’s ‘thinking with others’ is choral, porous, sometimes gnarly, often open-ended.”—Australian Book Review

"[Nelson] is more focused on creating a practice of freedom with her style than on any triumphs her style might produce. . . . Nelson’s most remarkable achievement, not only in On Freedom but across all her books, is that she consistently makes good on this wager to enact a form of care through her style.”—Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“In On Freedom, Maggie Nelson shows how enlivening new ways of thinking can actually be. . . . [On Freedom] is, refreshingly, a true work of criticism, willing to be disagreeable, argumentative and move toward unexpected conclusions.”—Gabriel Chazan, Triangle House Review

“[Maggie Nelson] traces the limits of liberty and the call to care in this expansive and sharp-eyed study. . . . Nelson turns each thought until it is finely honed and avoids binaries and bromides. While the literary theorizing is rich, this account soars in its ability to find nuance in considering questions of enormous importance. . . . Once again, Nelson proves herself a masterful thinker and an unparalleled prose stylist.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

“A top cultural critic plucks the concept of freedom away from right-wing sloganeers and explores its operation in current artistic and political conversations. . . . The subtlety of Nelson's analysis and energy of her prose refresh the mind and spirit.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Profound. . . . Nelson brings a critically nuanced appreciation of individual and societal freedom to her mapping of the minefields involved in simultaneously embracing liberty and jettisoning habits of control and paranoia that threaten liberation.”—Booklist

Product Details
ISBN: 9781644452028
ISBN-10: 1644452022
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication Date: September 6th, 2022
Pages: 312
Language: English