Much of this material is winningly geeky and enthusiastic ... More than once while reading The Word Pretty, I fondly remembered Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, published 20 years ago ... There aren’t enough books like these. They offer the pleasure of personal essays that are more inquisitive and obsessive than self-centered, and they are pitched squarely at readers. They are almost, in the way they spring from and itemize the act of reading, meta-books. Like any good magpie, Gabbert keeps the delightful facts coming, and often leads into them the way she might at a dinner party ... one way to describe this collection is as a series of tangents ... Which is not to say that Gabbert never builds a sustained argument or alights on a sturdy point ... In just three or four paragraphs, she brilliantly parses something you might have felt about dozens of memoirs without ever putting it quite this way. The book’s modesty can occasionally feel like the result of rough cutting rather than design, surely due in part to the fact that these pieces have been gathered from their original sources ... It’s a short book, and ideas and images recur—sometimes in a way that feels intentional and rewarding, but just as often in a way that feels unplanned and unnecessary ... But then the casualness of this collection is one of its attractions. It doesn’t strain after anything. It doesn’t have airs; and if it could speak, it would likely charmingly admit to its own imperfections. A mixture of depth and diversion, it makes you wish that, like a reliable band, Gabbert might publish a similar slender volume every year or two.
There is an almost obsessive (in a good way) focus on what it means to wish to be perceived in a certain way by others, as well as what it means to be hyper-aware of that tendency in yourself, on the conflict between the desires to be seen and at the same time, to escape being seen, and furthermore, to escape the painful self-consciousness that arises out of the awareness of that conflict. There is a constant, almost painful sense of struggle in this book, which is echoed in its very structure, between those varying impulses ... the use of tangents creates the illusion of a lack of deliberateness on the part of the author, as if the essay is like a car that, encountering some obstacle, must take an unexpected detour ... Throughout The Word Pretty, we encounter a mind in near-constant constant tension with itself, a restless intelligence that craves the respite of a sort of 'meaning-freeness'—a site in which meaning is present but also resists analysis, so perhaps more of a 'beyond-meaning-ness'—that is reminiscent of the physical body’s need for sleep ... What I love about Gabbert’s book is the way it embraces the idea of uncertainty ... but in the end...all the individual essays feel meaningfully connected, like the balls on the pool table. Although the pattern they form may appear to be random, the leave has been cleverly chosen, and the shot goes in.
Gabbert’s quest to translate the world around her—and make certain she is accurately and regularly translating it, too—pushes at the limits of language, connecting at unexpected points. Many of these pieces have a meandering rhythm, running from topic to topic and leaving it to the reader to put the pieces together ... In The Word Pretty, important life moments recur, sometimes treated briefly, sometimes in depth: a painful story about a friend being nearly crushed under a wall is told at least twice. Though the effect can at times be exhausting, Gabbert’s critical intelligence also makes for a powerful layering of thoughts. Her book is as much a guide to becoming and being a writer as it is about any specific personal transformation ... An assemblage of layers, Gabbert’s book acquires density and heft through its strategy of accumulation, creating a rich work of literary reflection that invites the reader to explore the works under consideration, as well as the wider world, from multiple, perpetually fresh perspectives.
I count Elisa Gabbert among the essayists I would eagerly read on anything. It happens to be the case that the things that tend to interest her—translation, literary style, and disasters, to name a few—tend to interest me, too. But the real pleasure of reading Gabbert is in letting oneself be carried along in her thinking, which is cuttingly clear and delightfully digressive ... Each [essay] is a journey through some of Gabbert’s idiosyncratic interests by way of her formidable intellect.