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The Unreality of Memory

And Other Essays

Elisa Gabbert

FSG Originals

The Unreality of Memory Download image

ISBN10: 0374538344
ISBN13: 9780374538347

Trade Paperback

272 Pages



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We stare at our phones. We keep multiple tabs open. Our chats and conversations are full of the phrase “Did you see?” The feeling that we’re living in the worst of times seems to be intensifying, alongside a desire to know precisely how bad things have gotten—and each new catastrophe distracts us from the last.

The Unreality of Memory collects provocative, searching essays on disaster culture, climate anxiety, and our mounting collective sense of doom. In this new collection, acclaimed poet and essayist Elisa Gabbert explores our obsessions with disasters past and future, from the sinking of the Titanic to Chernobyl, from witch hunts to the plague. These deeply researched, prophetic meditations question how the world will end—if indeed it will—and why we can’t stop fantasizing about it.

Can we avoid repeating history? Can we understand our moment from inside the moment? With The Unreality of Memory, Gabbert offers a hauntingly perceptive analysis of our new ways of being and a means of reconciling ourselves to this unreal new world.


Praise for The Unreality of Memory

“Gabbert draws masterly portraits of the precise, uncanny affects that govern our psychological relationship to calamity . . . Even more impressive is her skill at bending crisp, clear language into shapes that illustrate the shifting logic of the disastrous, keeping the reader oriented amid continual upheaval . . . The essays often seem uncannily to anticipate circumstances that the author simply couldn’t have known about: They have a clarity and prescience that imply a sort of distant, retrospective view, like postcards sent from the near future.”Alexandra Kleeman, The New York Times

"Elisa Gabbert’s The Unreality of Memory is one of those joyful books that send you to your notebook every page or so, desperate not to lose either the thought the author has deftly placed in your mind or the title of a work she has now compelled you to read. The essays encompass sickness and trauma, anesthesia and memory, politics and political apathy, but owing to the force of Gabbert’s attention, the book remains determinedly cohesive. Written before COVID-19 altered all our lives so irretrievably, it is also a work of uncanny prescience."—Robin Jones, The Paris Review

"Gabbert’s essays feel incredibly relevant . . . In a culture where so many of us are hurting—spiritually, mentally, and physically—Gabbert’s words invite us to feel our pain . . . Just as a massage leaves us feeling sore but also better, her work challenges us to see our collective suffering as one in which we have some personal responsibility for addressing . . . It is almost chilling to read certain sections of the book . . . Gabbert brings the problems to our attention, acknowledges she’s in the same boat with us, and quietly challenges us to respond."—Lindsey Weishar, Ploughshares

"Searing . . . In shattering essays, Gabbert explores if and how and why certain threats register more than others, and how even seemingly immutable facts are subject to spin from our imprecise recollections. There’s a chapter on pandemics, and yes, it is chilling."Vulture

"Gabbert’s wide-ranging essays span history, scholarship, pop culture, and literature with both nuance and incisiveness. They’re the kind of essays that don’t only teach you things, they leave you thinking harder and deeper about what it means to live in this world."—Lincoln Michel, BOMB

"Gabbert is that most valuable thing, a poet who is good at research; her details convince, and her style inveigles. Succeeding pieces about Chernobyl, the Challenger and Columbia explosions, the shocking 2016 election, and other examples all reinforce her point—including her rather detailed anticipation of a viral pandemic."—Phil Christman, Plough

"Provocative [and] searching . . . These deeply researched, prophetic meditations question how the world will end—if indeed it will—and why we can’t stop fantasizing about it."The Rumpus

“Absolutely stunning . . . [Gabbert] peers behind the curtains of mortality and time to explore the ways that memory and story either lull us into complacency about moral evil or allow us to embrace impending death . . . The Unreality of Memory is a book for our times.”Henry L. Carrigan Jr., BookPage

"Elisa Gabbert’s essays are always worth reading."LitHub

"If it seems that the world is falling apart, and you think you might be losing your mind, this book is here to reassure you: it is, and you are. There can be no better companion in these bewildering times than the crystalline mind of Elisa Gabbert; she delivers the bad news with the ardor of an aria and the rigor of a clinical trial."—J. Robert Lennon, author of Broken River

"Amid impending disasters too vast even to be perceived, what can we do—cognitively, morally, and practically? Gabbert, a tenacious researcher and a ruthless self-examiner, probes this ultimate abstraction in her essays, goes past wordless dread and comes up with enough reasoned consideration to lead us through. Do you feel—and how can you not—as if your emotional endurance is exhausted by horrors already well underway? Then you should read this book."—Sarah Manguso, author of The Guardians

"The Unreality of Memory fearlessly entertains taboo thoughts, but with the unaffected honesty of intimacy rather than the attention-seeking of a gadfly. Gabbert has the magical ability to make an essay feel like a best-ever conversation with a best friend, the kind of conversation that changes the way you think about things forever. Wildly fun and casually brilliant, this book will make you feel happier while you're reading it and smarter once you finish."—Sandra Newman, author of The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done

“Terror, disaster, memory, selfhood, happiness . . . leave it to a poet to tackle the unthinkable so wisely and so wittily. A work of sheer brilliance, beauty and bravery.”—Andrew Sean Greer, author of Less

"Examining disasters both man-made and natural, Gabbert's essays perform a beautiful autopsy of our fears, showing us what it means to exist in a time of eternal apocalypse. The Unreality of Memory is breathtaking in its scope and thought and captivating prose. This is a necessary and vital handbook for anyone experiencing the existential and not-so existential dread of everyday modern life."—Lyz Lenz, author of God Land

“This subtle, deft exploration of catastrophes—from Titanic and 9/11 to climate change and the present disaster that is American politics—is exactly the book we need . . . Elegantly structured and weirdly comforting, The Unreality of Memory brilliantly articulates our anxieties, fears, and wishes for destruction.”—Leigh Stein, author of Self Care

“I want to say Elisa Gabbert is a writer’s writer, because of what I hope that implies about her command of the language, her subtle experimentation, her thought-provoking sentences about a surprising range of subjects. But then will only writers read this? So instead I’ll say Elisa Gabbert is a writer everyone needs to read; her orderly, elegant essays are the perfect counterbalance to our current chaos culture.”—Amber Sparks, author of And I Do Not Forgive You

"In her second collection of nonfiction, poet Gabbert moves fluidly from disaster to dislocation to political upheaval, offering a kind of literary road map to our tumultuous era . . . The idea here—as in all the essays in this nuanced book—is that consciousness is conditional, and we can understand ourselves only in pieces. A fine collection from a poet who seems equally comfortable in prose."Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Deeply contemplative but accessible . . . Whatever the chosen topic, Gabbert’s essays manage to be by turns poetic, philosophical, and exhaustively researched. This is a superb collection."Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt




A couple of years ago, distracting myself at work, I saw a link on Twitter to a YouTube video that caught my attention. It was a computer-animated re-creation...

About the author

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert is the author of the poetry collections, L’Heure Bleue, The Self Unstable, and The French Exit. Her debut collection of essays, The Word Pretty, was published in 2018. The Self Unstable was chosen by the New Yorker as one of the best books of 2013. Gabbert's work has appeared in the New Yorker, Boston Review, The Paris Review Daily, Pacific Standard, Guernica, The Awl, Electric Literature, The Harvard Review, and many other venues. She lives in Denver.

(c) Adalena Kavanagh

Elisa Gabbert

Official Links

Read Articles and Poetry by the Author at Poetry Foundation

Articles by the Author at Medium