The Unreality of Memory

the unreality of memory by elisa gabbert

The Unreality of Memory & Other Essays is out now from FSG Originals.

A New York Times Editor’s Choice

Colorado Book Award Finalist

“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

“With poetic precision, The Unreality of Memory lays bare the truth, beauty, and pain of living in our era. Examining disasters both manmade 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. Breathtaking in its scope and thought and captivating prose, Unreality is a necessary and vital handbook for anyone experiencing the existential dread of everyday modern life.” — Lyz Lenz, author of Belabored and God Land

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 Heavens

“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 300 Arguments

“Elisa Gabbert is one of my favorite writers, but how I wish her new book wasn’t so timely! I mean this as the highest praise: I had to go lie down in between essays.” — Austin Kleon, bestselling author of Steal Like an Artist

“Gabbert draws masterly portraits of the precise, uncanny affects that govern our psychological relationship to calamity — from survivor’s guilt to survivor’s elation, to the awe and disbelief evoked by spectacles of destruction, to the way we manage anxiety over impending dangers. 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.” — Alexandra Kleeman in the New York Times

“Gabbert moves fluidly from disaster to dislocation to political upheaval, offering a kind of literary road map to our tumultuous era … Her questing, restless intelligence is what holds the essays together … 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 (starred review)

“Whatever the chosen topic, Gabbert’s essays manage to be by turns poetic, philosophical, and exhaustively researched. This is a superb collection.” — Publishers Weekly

“Gabbert’s voice is calm, playfully engaging and clear – a voice for our anxious, wired times, if ever there was one … Each diligently researched essay seems to evolve organically and if she doomscrolls her way down a rabbit hole, you know it will lead somewhere not just pertinent, but poetic and philosophical too.” — The Guardian

“In her absolutely stunning collection of essays, which is part medical and psychological sleuthing and part memoir, Elisa Gabbert takes up Percy’s question and places it in our current cultural context … Gabbert candidly asks startling and unsettling questions about our view of human nature and the ways we are often complicit in the suffering of others. With the world teetering on the brink of the political, social, environmental and medical abyss, The Unreality of Memory is a book for our times.” — Book Page

“Gabbert’s nimble essay collection does not tarry in despair, but neither does it distend into vague optimism. As a philosopher of disaster—imminent, recurring, and far-flung—Gabbert knows there’s no time to waste. Her source material is grim, a compendium of haunting threats that could fuel late-night obsession, but in the best of circumstances will nudge the political reckoning that’s already upon us … But as the book’s title implies, The Unreality of Memory is less a meditation on catastrophe than it is an inquiry into the variously stymied and misshapen ways humans discern them … Cumulatively, this work lays bare the intractable chasm between what we fear and what we understand.” — Rachel Vorona Cote in The Nation

“[A] searing essay collection that takes place at the intersection of devastation, technology, and memory. 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.” — Vulture

“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.” — The Paris Review

“Combining brain-boggling Gladwellian pop science and incisive social philosophy, an acclaimed poet offers a timely look at the tricks our minds play amid catastrophe.” — Oprah Magazine

“How did she so clearly see what was coming for us? One answer is that she has read and thought a lot about disaster and human perception, the themes that tie her essays together. Another is that she’s good at finding angles readers might not otherwise see. Like a restless photographer, she’ll stretch herself to find another and then another shot. She’ll zoom way in and way out.” — The Washington Post

“[An] elegant, chewy collection of essays … The casual note, whether absurd, funny, or melancholic, is important to Gabbert. She never allows it to dominate, but it’s a reliable way of leavening her rich textual mix of facts and scientific theories … Gabbert’s neither a scholar trying to nail down a narrow range of provable truths, nor a polemicist seeking to rattle our confidence.” — Jonathan Gharraie in Review31

“The award for most unintentionally perfect publishing timing goes to Elisa Gabbert for her latest book, The Unreality of Memory … You would think I’d be sick of reading about catastrophes after a god-awful year, but I found Gabbert’s collection of essays about our darkest moments, including September 11, Chernobyl, witch hunts, and, yes, pandemics, to be strangely comforting. At a time when everything feels enormously high stakes, I found solace in being reminded that history is long and full of desolation, and that I am small.” — Maren Larsen, Outside

“Elisa Gabbert’s essays are always worth reading … Not necessarily uplifting, but personally, I find reading the meditations of a brilliant writer, particularly meditations about the dread I can’t shake, both soothing and invigorating.” — Jessie Gaynor in Lit Hub

“At times I wondered why I wanted to read a book about disasters amid the pandemic, Trump’s presidency, the climate change tipping point, and so on. But of course it’s the most natural thing in the world to find comfort in processing those threats. Reading these wide-ranging essays feels like being taken on a relaxing meander through a chamber of horrors, with a steady and wise guide at your side to help you make sense of it all.” — Claire Fallon in HuffPost

“A fascinating look at disasters past and present … Gabbert is an intelligent, companionable, trustworthy guide through some of our worst personal and collective experiences.” — Rebecca Hussey in BookRiot

“Perfectly synthesized research about facets of human fear in twelve essays … Gabbert’s essays provide context for the role of humanity in a world of chaotic disaster.” — Elle Nash in Hazlitt

“An insightful and contemplative essay collection focused on how we process catastrophes … 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 in BOMB

“Gabbert’s expansiveness allows her to move from an investigation of our societal obsession with the horrific to a serious questioning of the very forms of subjective experience we inhabit. An uncanny and deeply moving collection for our moment.” — Chicago Review of Books

“The individual essays use Chernobyl, the Titanic, climate change, and other instances of apocalypse, all of which Gabbert brings to new life by unearthing lost details and framing each event in terms of our recollection of them, not necessarily the events themselves. The collection threads together a treatise on human capacity for mis-remembering and how we go about protecting ourselves from suffering. At one point she wonders which is more true—whether emotions are ideas, or whether ideas are emotions—and these essays as a whole demonstrates that the two are symbiotic.” — Grand Journal (Top 10 Books of 2020)

“The true mark of a timeless book is that it feels timely no matter when you read it; Elisa Gabbert’s new essay collection — full of provocative, prescient meditations about politics and illness and memory and identity— has just that kind of exquisite urgency. Gabbert looks at both the past and present to contemplate and probe at what may become our future. Unafraid to explore the darkest reaches of our minds and behaviors, Gabbert still offers a glimmer of hope amid all the anxiety and terror of our age.” — Refinery29

The Unreality of Memory is an expansive collection of essays that is partly about disaster (9/11, Chernobyl, plagues), but equally about the shifting constructs of society and selfhood through which we mediate the world. From the slow violence of global warming to the fever pitch of Twitter feeds, Gabbert gracefully explores what knowledge means when its contexts are constantly collapsing—and which pieces of information we should focus on in the first place.” — Richa Kaul Padte in Electric Literature

“Gabbert’s arresting new collection … spirals outward to ponder the human condition in our current age of disasters … spookily prescient.” — Full Stop

“A poet and essayist, Elisa Gabbert brings the exquisite attention to language to her prose in this finely wrought collection … It’s a timely book, begun in the first year of the Trump presidency and released in the midst of a global pandemic, and yet its preoccupations are timeless … Gabbert employs personal and philosophical touches, page after incisive page.” — Thrillist

“Gabbert is that most valuable thing, a poet who is good at research; her details convince, and her style inveigles.” — Phil Christman in Plough

“Artfully weaving together the personal and political, each essay places not only our fears, but vitally, our responses to them, under the microscope. Aiming not to solve society’s ills nor eradicate our anxiety, Gabbert instead encourages us to consider why we feel this way, and how we might adapt to our strange new condition. Rigorously researched and eloquently written, The Unreality of Memory is a literary zeitgeist.” — The Publishing Post

The Unreality of Memory is both an examination of conscience and a cataloging of modern American anxiety. Many times while reading, this book made me feel both less and more alone. Like a diary one revisits too soon after writing, there are parts of this book that are meant to discomfort. For example, Gabbert often ends her essays with a sentence that slightly troubles the rest of the piece, adding an element of uncertainty that’s appropriate to an ever-shifting reality…What she does not prescribe are the ways in which we’re called to take action against the forces that threaten our—perhaps gradual—demise. Gabbert brings the problems to our attention, acknowledges she’s in the same boat with us, and quietly challenges us to respond.” — Lindsey Weishar in Ploughshares

“This gathering of material is a strength of Gabbert’s essays. They’re curious, interdisciplinary, and wide-ranging.” — Katherine Lucky in Commonweal