Any Person Is the Only Self
by Elisa Gabbert (2024)
FSG Originals (2024)
240 pp

I started following Elisa Gabbert on social media a few years ago, and I’ve often been struck by her generous demeanor and fantastic insights about reading and writing. I’ve been meaning to get her essay collection The Unreality of Memory (not to mention her first collection, The Word Pretty), but as things go I got to this new collection, Any Person Is the Only Self, first. It has only made me more anxious to go back and read her first two collections.

This is a collection of 16 essays, mostly about reading, writing, and life, as well the way these tangle, with many essays touching on the pandemic. She is able to roam around a whole field of topics in a single essay and, if not bring all threads together (I wouldn’t want her to), make it a delightful, insightful journey.

I was hooked from the first essay, “On Recently Returned Books.” Here we learn about an interesting shelf at a Denver library, one where you could browse books that were “Recently Returned.” Here she found a large variety of books that “reduced the scope of my options, but without imposing any one person’s taste or agenda upon me.” She was attracted to this shelf because these books were not being marketed to her: “I came to think of that shelf as an escape from hype. It was negative hype. It was anti-curation.” This essay, as I mentioned above, ranges freely over some memorable books (and the insights she gleans from them) to the closing of the library in early 2020 when lockdown began. Much of what came before is suddenly infused with a sense of the passage of time, of experiencing life sometimes without recognizing its passing. I loved it.

As we can see by her attraction to the recently returned books shelf, Gabbert looks for ways to experience life in ways that are not programmed. What unique experiences can there be, what new insights, if she’s able to have things come at her in ways even the algorithm couldn’t anticipate. The next essay carries this on in a fun way; it’s called “The Stupid Classics Book Club,” and it’s about a book group she and some friends put together in order to read “stupid classics.” What does that mean, they wonder? “For me, ‘stupid’ mean relatively short, accessible enough to be on a high school syllabus, and probably rehashed cliché over time by multiple firm adaptations and Simpsons episodes.” They didn’t actually think any of the books would be stupid, but we get a lovely take down of the first book on the list, Fahrenheit 451.

It’s a wonderful essay simply on the classics, and why reading them is great. I found myself nodding along as she expressed something, at the end, that resonated with me:

This is why it’s worth reading the classics — to spend enough time with a text that a reference to it isn’t just outside you, but connected to your intimate experience of the text and all the other texts it connects to.

But this is just the first sentence in the final paragraph, and what came next had me thinking a lot more than that first sentence, as much as I loved the thought on reading classics. Here is where this goes:

Sometimes, lately, I get a glistening feeling that references, which are often, in any case, unintentional, are not one-way but reciprocal, that Eliot is referencing the Okkervil River song as much as the other way around. In the right mood, reading The Waste Land, I can feel unhooked from time, like Proust’s narrator of Swann’s Way dozing in his “magic” chair — the poem seems to allude both backward and forward, to reference the future.

I quoted that paragraph fully because I think it encapsulates the joys I felt reading this collection. Gabbert is so often writing about things that interest me, and I love how often she has an insight that just hits right, even if it might not be particularly brand new. But then she keeps going to places I’ve never dreamt of. I finished these essays wanting to continue to ponder.

There are so many topics that come up in these pages — Evelyn Waugh, Moby-Dick, Proust, Woolf, Plath, including a lengthy look at Gabbert’s experience reading Heather Clark’s Plath biography, Red Comet (one of my favorite books I read last year), during quarantine. Indeed, that’s another thing I loved about this book: Gabbert is letting us in on her own experiences with these topics. She is not simply giving us her conclusions; she is allowing us to see how they came to her and how her life affected her experiences with them.

I don’t seek out a lot of essay collections, but when I come upon them I so often end up loving them (thinking of many released by NYRB Classics over the years). This is right there with them, and though I’m excited to go back and read more of Gabbert’s work, I’m also excited to read these very essays again. I don’t feel done with them at all.

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