The Book of Delights: Essays
Reviewed by Lauren Brownlee
I was introduced to Ross Gay when I happened to pick up a copy of the January/February 2019 issue of Poets & Writers magazine, which was the “Inspiration Issue.” Reading Gay’s interview therein led to changing my Facebook biography to a quote from him: “I believe in hollering about what you love.” His new book, The Book of Delights, is reflective of that sentiment and is the result of having completed a goal to write a short essay every day for a year about a delight he had experienced that day. He follows the philosophy that the more one loves, the happier one will be, and he believes in an ethic of sharing about love and beauty. The Book of Delights is a testament to that philosophy and ethic.
Throughout the book, Gay models George Fox’s call: walking cheerfully over the earth answering the Light in everyone. One sentiment at the heart of the book is his understanding that “in almost every instance of our lives, our social lives, we are, if we pay attention, in the midst of an almost constant, if subtle, caretaking. . . . This caretaking is our default mode and it’s always a lie that convinces us to act or believe otherwise.” This idea is present in many of the essays and stories: the therapist Gay loves because of the therapist’s belief that our goal should be to achieve pure love; Gay’s love of any physical affection people show him (including a delightful story about a high five!); Gay’s love of being called pet names by strangers and giving nicknames to loved ones; Gay’s belief that babies bring out the best in us all and his faith in common decency. He is equally delighted by strangers as by those with whom he is intimately connected. Toward the end of the book, he writes, “kindness and kin have the same mother. Maybe making those to whom we are kind our kin. To whom, even, those we might be. And that circle is big.” By this point, he has already shown his readers how living that ideal can look.
Gay is also deeply in unity with nature. He shares that gardens nourish his delight and explains the ways he makes the most of not only his own garden, but all the gardens he encounters. He describes how his garden sings out to him and reminds him that every living being is “rooting around for the light” together. He believes that a lily from his garden “will in fact kill you with delight . . . and the lily will resurrect you, too.” One of his essays is a love letter to the sun, and another extols the many talents of bees. His love of nature is a call to action for all of us to decenter ourselves and think about the mutuality we share with the natural world.
I was particularly impressed by the fact that, despite his omnipresent joy, Gay does not wear rose-colored glasses. He acknowledges the prejudices of society and delights in both facing them and navigating around the obstacles they create. He shares such concerns as the valuing of property over people, the teaching of fear, and the ubiquity of statues that feature guns. In one essay he delights in a T-shirt that says, “Make it scary to be a racist again,” and then reflects, “difficult as this is, I want light shone on the racist, too, and the hateful in me, too.” One powerful essay examines how Blackness and suffering are all too often conflated in popular culture and how he hopes that his book will show people that Black delight is as “Daily as air.”
I was thrilled when I saw that Gay was coming to my neighborhood bookstore to read from The Book of Delights. The book’s acknowledgements end with “And finally, Dear Reader, as always, as always, I am grateful to you,” and I experienced that sense of love in each moment of his author talk (which leads me to recommend listening to the audio version of the book if you can; Gay is an outstanding narrator). As soon as the talk was over, I bought the book and waited to get it signed. When I got to the front of the line, I told Gay how much I loved the talk, how I had been sitting next to his cousin, and how I wished I were his cousin. He asked me about my work then and signed my book, “In Joy Together, Cousin!” The Book of Delights is a most delightful book by a most delightful human.