The Book of Delights: Essays
- By Ross Gay
- Algonquin Books
- 288 pp.
- Reviewed by Jennifer Bort Yacovissi
- February 14, 2019
A poet finds endless enchantment in the everyday.
Ross Gay spent a lot of time on airplanes in a recent 12-month period, which, these days — what with security lines, absent amenities, and shrinking legroom (and he being a pretty tall guy) — does not sound very delightful. Yet Gay made it his practice over the course of a year to open himself to and capture his impressions of the little pleasures of the everyday, every day.
Well, maybe not every day. There aren’t 365 essays in The Book of Delights, but we spend one year with Gay, from birthday to birthday, learning to delight with him and to be delighted by him.
Even better (or, as the author would say, “Delight!”), this is a physically small book that fits nicely in the reader’s hands. Each essay stands satisfyingly on its own, at most six or eight pages, more often two or fewer. All of which goes to say that it’s a book that begs to be carried along, offering insight and delight in whatever slice of time a reader may have. This is flash nonfiction.
If you didn’t know Gay as a poet before coming to Delights, his prose would tip you off, with its repetition and precision, its river of ideas and images flowing without pause from one into another. In several essays, he describes sitting on a curb or a step to capture an impression in the immediacy of the moment, and that sense of spontaneity remains.
The essay “Writing by Hand” underscores that writing these essays — with a Le Pen, in small notebooks, seeing the words appear, enjoying the feel, living with the scratch-outs, allowing run-on fragments to stand as he never would on a computer, all of which is absolutely part of the delight — was closer to how he writes poetry. We’re invited in to watch him thinking in real time, and the messiness of ideas as they emerge is a large part of the joy.
A lovely example is “Tap Tap,” perhaps a page long, written in three running, discursive sentences that manage without strain to consider the reassurance of a welcome, friendly touch of a stranger as counterpoint to “the official American policy, which is a kind of de facto and terrible touching of some of us.” But then the balm of this, “tap, tap, reminding me, like that, simply, remember, tap tap, how else we might be touched.”
This sort of warm touch or incidental happy interaction with strangers is a recurring delight for Gay. After getting high-fived out of the blue by a young white girl, he says, “For I love, I delight in, unequivocally pleasant public physical interactions with strangers…when a waitress puts her hand on my shoulder. (Forget it if she calls me honey. Baby even better.) Or someone scooting by puts their hand on my back. The handshake. The hug. I love them both.”
There is a similar sort of physicality to most of these essays that embodies delight rather than merely observing it. These essays get their hands dirty.
In fact, the author is a gardener, and the delights of the garden return as a thematic touchstone. “Tomato on Board” begins:
“What you don’t know until you carry a tomato seedling through the airport and onto a plane is that carrying a tomato seedling through the airport and onto a plane will make people smile at you almost like you’re carrying a baby.”
In “Understory,” he riffs on the redbud as the Judas tree in Christian tradition, “though the way the redbud flowers cluster like an orgy of kissy-mouths might also have been a good puritanical reason enough to associate the tree with the less than divine.”
To be sure, not everything that Gay’s eye rests upon and his pen captures is a delight. “Hole in the Head” considers a documentary of the same name that tells the story of Vertus Hardiman, who, at age 5, was among a group of black children used in radiation experiments, which ended up burning “a fist-sized crevice in his skull.”
Gay muses, “I’m trying to remember the last day I haven’t been reminded of the inconceivable violence black people have endured in this country.” But, as he notes in his introduction, the discipline of noticing delights in order to write about them also “occasioned a kind of delight radar…Something that implies that the more you study delight, the more delight there is to study.”
The other main point this collection proves is that delight is infectious and demands to be shared, and, most importantly, “our delight grows as we share it.”
Jennifer Bort Yacovissi’s debut novel, Up the Hill to Home, tells the story of four generations of a family in Washington, DC, from the Civil War to the Great Depression. Jenny is a member of PEN/America and the National Book Critics’ Circle and writes a monthly column and reviews regularly for the Independent. She served as chair of the 2017 and 2018 Washington Writers Conference and for several recent years was president of the Annapolis chapter of the Maryland Writers Association.