What are the raw materials of our lives? Who are the authors, the singers and songwriters, the actors and artists whose work resonates with each of us and makes us who we are? It’s a question that is brilliantly and masterfully explored by arts critic Margo Jefferson in her new memoir, Constructing a Nervous System, in which she weaves her personal history with those of the artists who are part of her “nervous system,” setting it all within a wider cultural context. In this spirited and wide-ranging conversation, Julie and Eve talk with Margo about deriving power from our heroes and our anti-heros, how accepting complexity can be a better course than cancellation when we encounter racism and other biases in cherished artists and their works, how critics can betray their readers, and so much more.
Margo Jefferson won a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and previously served as Books and Arts Critic for Newsweek and The New York Times. Constructing a Nervous System was long listed for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction. It was named a Best Book of the Year for The New Yorker and Publishers Weekly, and a Most Anticipated Book for The New York Times, Time, Los Angeles Times, Vulture, Observer, Vanity Fair, Bustle, Buzzfeed, and more. Margo's earlier memoir, Negroland, received the National Book Critic Circle Award for Autobiography. She's also the author of On Michael Jackson and is a professor of writing at Columbia University School of the Arts.
Constructing a Nervous System: A Memoir
FINALIST FOR THE 2023 CARNEGIE MEDAL FOR NONFICTION
A NEW YORKER BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR
A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR: TIME Magazine, The New Yorker, Vulture, Publishers Weekly • Shortlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction
A MOST ANTICIPATED BOOK: The New York Times, TIME, Los Angeles Times, Vulture, Observer, Vanity Fair, Bustle, Buzzfeed, and more
“Drawing on material as disparate as Henry James, The Wire, Othello, and Black spirituals, [Jefferson] narrates moments of her life as they unfold in relation to “avatars”. . . . “Great soloists never perform entirely alone,” Jefferson writes, and the same is true for her.”
—“The Best Books of 2022 So Far,” The New Yorker
“[A] moving excavation of Black female identity. . . . Through autobiographical fragments and sharp cultural commentary, Jefferson delivers an innovative interrogation of the intersections of race and class.”
—“Best Books 2022,” Publishers Weekly
“This is a book for deep submergence, not quick flipping. This is appointment reading. Clear the schedule and commit . . . Hypnotic. . . Ravishing and rigorous . . . in an artistic tradition that includes Emily Dickinson, Frida Kahlo and Ingmar Bergman: ruthless self-excavation that is scrupulously free of solipsism . . . [Jefferson] has—along with other recent innovators in the form . . . grabbed hold of that permission slip and torn it to shreds.”
—Molly Young, The New York Times
Constructing a Nervous System: A Memoir, by Margo Jefferson
Negroland: A Memoir, by Margo Jefferson
Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather