The 21st Century Mind: Review of the Essay Collection,”The Word Pretty” by Elisa Gabbert

The Word Pretty by Elisa Gabbert (Black Ocean, 2018)

☆☆☆☆☆/ 5 stars

“The essay needn’t be faithful to the path of the thinking, but the form can reveal how thinking happens, like when a song gets stuck in your head and only later do you realize why you thought of it, that you had read or heard a word from the third verse. There’s magic there—the mind doesn’t always show its work. Why should prose?” -Elisa Gabbert, “The Art of the Paragraph,” The Word Pretty

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Elisa Gabbert’s work first appeared to me in the form of her first poetry collection, The French Exit (Birds, LLC., 2010) which I had to purchase as one of three collections for a poetry class earlier this semester. In the second week of classes we were asked to go home and read all three collections and bring back our favorites to read for the class the following week. I perused the pages of the other two required collections, relatively unmoved, but when I opened Gabbert’s collection I was taken aback; a storm of pages turning and pen marks flying ensued. The collection is filled with self-deprecating humor regarding sadness and life, a language I speak fluently and resonated with me. So, when I learned that Gabbert would be visiting my university in February, but for her creative nonfiction work in the essays of The Word Pretty, I immediately headed to the web to order one of the last two available on Amazon.

The Word Pretty is a brilliant collection, the style of which I can’t help but compare to my favorite book of essays ever, Too Much and Not the Mood by Durga Chew Bose. Gabbert, like Bose, has written essays for the modern world. She muses on the linguistic significance of the emoji, the variations on the catharsis of crying, the definition of poetry, why one reads novels, the word pretty, and more. Gabbert, though presenting essays full of research, fact and opinion alike, offers-up essays full literary mastery, images, and ideas that will resonate with the modern woman or man.

Gabbert’s structuring of her essays and the book as a whole is masterful. I must now then contend that Gabbert’s true brilliance is revealed in something in the collection which at first I was unsure of: her recycling of ideas and specific references in separate essays, highlighted by the chosen structure of the collection. For example, there are a several successive essays in the collection that reference the variations on translations of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, or toward the end of the collection she quotes John Berger’s Ways of Seeing two separate times. On a surface level I have to acknowledge that to some this may appear lazy, a recycling of ideas with little effort; however, I think this is where the genius lies. Gabbert has mimicked what it is like to think and learn—one gathers information and continuously returns to it, musing on it in different ways, seeing how it applies to the world around them. She revealed how thinking happens. She muses on the same ideas, but in fresh ways each time.

This week, I had the pleasure of meeting Gabbert and hearing her read from The Word Pretty(as well as The French Exit, and L’Heure Bleue Or The Judy Poemswhen she came to speak to my poetry class that has been studying her work). I must say hearing her read from the collection and explain some of it, only solidified my appreciation for what she does in this collection. Gabbert has revealed herself as a modern writer for a modern audience, musing on what it means to live and think in the 21stcentury.


Published by Laci Durham

Reader, writer, and aspiring book publisher. Reading for the love of it; I hope you'll join me. Contact me at

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