A Review of Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights
May 23, 2019 § 8 Comments
by Vivian Wagner
One cool, April day, seven years almost to the day after my father’s suicide, I sat outside a coffee shop reading Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights. As cherry blossom petals fell around me and onto the pages of the book, I came across this passage in one of its essays, “‘Joy Is Such a Human Madness’”
It astonishes me sometimes—no, often—how every person I get to know—everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything—lives with some profound personal sorrow. Brother addicted. Mother murdered. Dad died in surgery. Rejected by their family. Cancer came back. Evicted. Fetus not okay. Everyone, regardless, always of everything.
The essay ends with the idea that maybe, by joining our wildernesses of sorrow, we can find something like joy:
Is sorrow the true wild?
And if it is—and if we join them—your wild to mine—what’s that?
For joining, too, is a kind of annihilation.
What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying.
I’m saying: What if that is joy?
Not for the first time in reading The Book of Delights, I found myself crying. And then, as if on cue, a woman walked past with a cup of coffee. I smiled at her through my tears, and she smiled back. It was a brief moment of empathy and connection, of sorrow and joy.
It was a moment, in short, that could have come right out of Gay’s collection.
The Book of Delights is about how everyone lives on a knife edge between life and death, beauty and horror. The book spans the course of a year, from one birthday to the next, with Gay recounting in what he calls “essayettes” his everyday observations and experiences, joys and sorrows. Discussing everything from gardening to race relations, the book’s underlying premise is that connecting with others—particularly in a world rife with division—is central to living a full and happy life.
This practice of writing the essays for the volume is both meditative and interactive, and it leads him down crisscrossing paths shaped by his deep sense of empathy. These are essays about care and concern, and though on the surface they focus on the specific and idiosyncratic details of his daily life, they ultimately aim for a kind of universality, the hidden network of roots and mycelium that holds a culture’s forest together.
In one essay, “Found Things,” for instance, he describes seeing birds swooping through the Detroit airport and witnessing the way their presence brings people together. The idea delight expands through sharing is one of the central themes of the collection. He’s always looking for the small and seemingly insignificant connections we make with one another—a pat on the arm, a friendly glance, a song—that are evidence of shared humanity and, which might well be the same thing, shared mortality.
Race and class are two other central themes in the book. As a black man in the U.S., Gay understands viscerally the ways that people do not always connect and can, in fact, be cruel, dismissive, and violent toward one another. These essays look head-on at the tensions in American culture, even as they seek to find ways to open up fissures of communication, empathy, and understanding.
In one essay, “The Negreeting,” he talks about his desire for communication and acknowledgement between black people on the street—and the disappointment he feels when it’s not always forthcoming. In another, “The High-Five from Strangers, Etc.,” he looks at how what counts as pleasant or delightful is not always universal. As he says,
I love, I delight in, unequivocally pleasant public physical interactions with strangers. What constitutes pleasant, it’s no secret, is informed by my large-ish, male, and cisgender body, a body that is also large-ish, male, cisgender, and not white. In other words, the pleasant, the delightful, are not universal. We all should understand this by now.
And in “Microgentrification: WE BUY GOLD,” he describes sitting in the sun by a café and being told by the owner of a neighboring pawn shop to move along. He doesn’t even need to mention racism in this essay; it’s there in full view.
Nonetheless, the essays in this book all wend toward ground where connections might be made, even if they’re brief, barely-there wisps of recognition. Throughout this collection, Gay remains hopeful that empathy will win.
In its search for connectedness, The Book of Delights is not at all sentimental or trite. Rather, it looks squarely at the rifts between us—rifts that take the form of everything from hatred to casual disassociation—and still dares us to find the tomato plants and songs, the cups of coffee and tears, that we share.
Vivian Wagner lives in New Concord, Ohio, where she’s an associate professor of English at Muskingum University. She’s the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music, and several collections of poetry: The Village, Curiosities, and Raising.