EVEN IF YOU DON’T KNOW Aaron Gilbreath’s name, you’ve probably read his work. The Portland author’s essays have ended up everywhere from Harper’s and Slate to The Believer and the New York Times. But he hasn’t published a book showing the range of his interests and abilities until now.
Everything We Don’t Know, which comes out this week on Chicago-based indie press Curbside Splendor, compiles nearly 20 of Gilbreath’s essays from the past decade. While they’re essays first and foremost—they go where they please without concern for an overarching narrative—a casual memoir builds behind the individual pieces in a mostly chronological fashion. The collection begins with Gilbreath just out of high school in Phoenix and takes us through his 2000 move to Portland, his failed foray into the New York City publishing world during the mid-’00s, his post-fail move back into his parents’ house, and his return to Portland.
Throughout the years, Gilbreath presents himself as an odd variety of lost boy—lost even among other lost boys. He’s resistant to cookie-cutter ideas of settling down, but his idea of fun and games is a little different than most. He writes the essays from the vantage point of someone who’s already quit most of his vices, isn’t much for parties, and ends up flying solo on most of his adventures. More than anything, he wants to be a researcher—whether in the woods, the library, or ignored corners of a city—writing essays and books about all the things he’s curious about. Which, it turns out, encompass a wide range.
The subjects he takes on in Everything We Don’t Know include (but aren’t limited to): kitsch architecture, mental health, Star Wars collectibles, late 19th-century Jewish immigration to New York City, drug addiction, surf and skate movies of the 1980s, and the ocean-bound debris of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster.
Like the best essayists, Gilbreath seeks out ambiguities in his subjects, often embracing their murky uncertainties. Even when it’s uncomfortable, he lingers in the unknown. “The human mind likes what talk shows call 'closure,’” he writes in the book’s stunning title essay. “It tries to make full circles. It prefers completed puzzles to pieces. We struggle to live with enduring mystery.”
Though he wants the satisfaction of that brief mental closure, he also wants a world that’s in some ways forever mysterious, and it’s this push and pull between the known and unknown that ultimately drives the essay collection.
Everything We Don’t Know is expansive, obsessive, and consistently entertaining. Gilbreath’s inquisitiveness is infectious, and his misadventures are filled with a self-doubt that’s charming and all too relatable. “I wondered why I had ever questioned my enthusiasm,” he writes, “all the while knowing that I would question myself again the next time.”