Book review: The Book of Delights, by Ross Gay (Amazon / Book Depository)
It didn’t take me long to learn that the discipline or practice of writing these essays occasioned a kind of delight radar. Or maybe it was more like the development of a delight muscle. Something that implies that the more you study delight, the more delight there is to study. A month or two into this project delights were calling to me: Write about me!
Poet Ross Gay, on his 42nd birthday, decided to write “essayettes” on the delights he encountered throughout a year, beginning on that birthday and ending on the next. As he considers what delights him every day throughout the year, he wanders and muses through topics of family, race relations, kindness, politics, books (some good recommendations!), his dreams, and his garden.
He’s earthy, curious, observant, and amazingly in touch with the powerful happiness to be found in simplicities. These are sweet but never saccharine, often more serious than might be expected (addressing racism and the current political state, but even there his humor and optimism take over.) They’re thoughtful and meditative, revealing of something profoundly positive and hopeful about human nature.
It also requires faith that delight will be with you daily, that you needn’t hoard it. No scarcity of delight.
His rules were fairly loose, he allowed himself to skip days but stuck to writing them journal-style, by hand. As he progressed, he began to notice more and more delightful things – a wonderful lingering side effect. He lays down some guidelines as he goes, like that “delight doesn’t truck with ought,” from one of my favorites describing a backboard that reminds him of a Rothko painting. They’re often ordinary or mundane moments or events, but watching him draw something profound, joyful, or meaningful from them feels magical.
It’s laced with kind, well-intentioned humor, as when describing an air quote enthusiast: “My friend’s air quotes are unabashed, two-handed, two-fingered punctuative dances during which, often, he will lean back or put a hip out like he’s setting a Hula-Hoop into motion.”
He writes about coffee and coffeeshops, and his disdain for demitasse saucers, calling them “little discuses of evil”. Where’s the delight in that? When a barista knows him well enough not to bother reaching for one.
Sometimes a delight surprises, either him or the reader. Some begin with something crotchety that seems unlikely to become a happy positive. But Gay extracts some simple, sweet lesson from it, learning something about himself or the way we interact with one another. I loved one such that began: “At the Afghan restaurant today I identified in myself a burbling in my reservoir of annoyance when I realized that people were going around the buffet in the wrong direction.”
Some are worded a bit complicatedly, with a somewhat unusual structure including a penchant for commas. But he’s a poet, so no surprise that his prose features such a poetic use of language. His style is easy to get used to, and with his clearly distinct voice it eventually becomes a – dare I say it – delight to read.
Which is only to say my heart cooing like a pigeon nestled on a windowsill where the spikes rusted off.
One of my favorites was about carrying a tomato seedling through the airport. He noted he was traveling frequently in the year of his delight-chronicling, and based on my own airport/plane experiences I wouldn’t be quick to identify that as a wellspring of delights. But his airport-related moments were reassuring, especially as he describes his journey with the tomato and how much other people loved that he was transporting it:
When we landed, and the pilot put the brakes on hard, my arm reflexively went across the seat, holding the li’l guy in place, the way my dad’s arm would when he had to brake hard in that car without seatbelts to speak of, in one of my very favorite gestures in the encyclopedia of human gestures.
Some other favorite lines, among many:
“I know that I rarely call the people I love by their names. I call them, if it is okay with them, by the name I have given them. I wonder if this means I think of my beloveds as my children. That seems very patronizing. Especially because I mostly don’t give them money.”
“One of the great delights of my life, when I get to do it, is staring into the ceiling or closet from my bed, or looking at the slats of light coming into the room, or the down of dust hovering on the blinds, recalling my dreams. Sometimes they are prominent and clear, like last night when I was to be Hillary Clinton’s vice president. I was … thinking to myself, She’s got the wrong guy. I’m not cut out for this. I was thinking of my tendency toward panic and paranoia, and how that might not be suitable for someone who’s second in command. Though I gave her a big hug for being the first female nominee, the first female president, congratulating her and silently thinking, How can I get out of this.”
“I suspect it is simply a feature of being an adult, what I will call being grown, or a grown person, to have endured some variety of thorough emotional turmoil, to have made your way to the brink, and, if you’re lucky, to have stepped back from it—if not permanently, then for some time, or time to time.”
The amazing aftereffect of reading these, besides such a warm, personal glimpse into someone else’s life and what they love about it, is that you start to become more aware of and receptive to what’s delightful in your own life. A proverbial breath of fresh air; if you’re in a slump, these provide many happy, quietly inspiring reasons to feel delighted again.
The Book of Delights: Essays
by Ross Gay
published February 19, 2019 by Algonquin
What a fab-sounding book. One can never have too many delights!
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So true! I guess they can be so simple that it’s easy to overlook sometimes. This was such a great reminder 🙂
This sounds wonderful! I feel like I read a lot on ‘serious’ or darker topics, especially when reading nonfiction, and I’d like to pick up something as happy as this.
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I feel the same! Even when it’s not true crime, I’m realizing how often I’m reading heavier topics. This one was such a welcome and wonderful change!
Glad to hear you enjoyed this! Last year I read his most recent collection of poetry, and it seems like it’s similar to this – his optimism really is infectious.
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That’s exactly the way to describe it, it’s infectious! Even if I didn’t connect personally to one of his specific delights, it was impossible not to feel more and more optimistic. These are very poetic in their style too. You should definitely try this one, I think you’d like it a lot.
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