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The Book of Delights: Essays

Review

The Book of Delights: Essays

When Henry James admonished writers to be “one of the people on whom nothing is lost,” he could well have been describing poet Ross Gay. Author of three books of poetry, including the National Book Critics Circle prize-winning collection CATALOG OF UNABASHED GRATITUDE, he now has applied his considerable talent to the essay.

In THE BOOK OF DELIGHTS, Gay delivers more than 100 bite-sized entries that carry him through one year, beginning on his 42nd birthday in 2016. Intensely personal, wise, witty and sensuous, these glimpses of life through Gay’s perceptive eyes aren’t merely an introduction to his unique world. Collectively they’re an invitation to readers to awaken to the delights that surround us every day.

When he embarked on the project that became this book, Gay’s plan was to “write a daily essay about something delightful,” and though he hewed scrupulously to that theme, he admits his commitment to the regimen of producing a piece each day faltered.

From his hometown of Bloomington, Indiana, where he teaches at Indiana University, Gay digs deeply and with an infectious exuberance into the life he’s living, at the same time  ranging over a lifetime of memories and experiences that take him back to his childhood in Levittown, Pennsylvania, and forward as we share his 43rd year.

"THE BOOK OF DELIGHTS isn’t simply a lighthearted romp through Gay’s enjoyably observant life. Though politically themed essays don’t dominate, he chooses his targets with care, and hits them when he does."

Coining the term “essayette” for these explorations, Gay’s delight-provoking preoccupations are diverse, but they gradually coalesce around a handful of themes, among them family, friendship, the challenges of life as an African-American in 21st-century America, and, above all, his deep engagement with the natural world, especially through his passion for horticulture. A typical entry runs three to four pages, while the briefest are a single paragraph. And whether he’s writing about basketball, bakeries or bobbleheads, Gay is relentlessly enthusiastic about even the most mundane subject that catches his eye.

But for all its emphasis on life’s pleasures, THE BOOK OF DELIGHTS isn’t simply a lighthearted romp through Gay’s enjoyably observant life. Though politically themed essays don’t dominate, he chooses his targets with care, and hits them when he does.

A piece about his love for “weird vernacular sayings that roll off the tongue” that focuses on “I need x like I need a hole in the head” is illustrative. In it, Gay describes horrifying radiation experiments conducted in the 1920s in a small southern Indiana town established by free blacks in the 19th century. “I’m trying to remember the last day I haven’t been reminded of the inconceivable violence black people have endured in this country,” he writes.

In another essay about Whitney Houston, he points out how “one of the objectives of popular culture, popular media, is to make blackness appear to be inextricable from suffering,” something he says is “clever as hell if your goal is obscuring the efforts, the systems, historical and ongoing, to ruin black people.” But he ends on a note of hope, reminding us that we have been “reading a book of delights written by a black person.”

As one would expect from a poet of Gay’s skill, words themselves are objects of delight, as when an essay on harvesting two kinds of carrots he and his partner plant in the spring moves into a contemplation of the word kindness and how it and kin “have the same mother.”

And speaking of carrots, THE BOOK OF DELIGHTS is overflowing with a profusion of vegetables, fruits and flowers, spread like a feast by this self-described “novice naturalist.” Gay’s frequent, mouth-watering descriptions of a cornucopia of produce probably make it a bad idea to read his book on an empty stomach.

He also writes seductively about the world of insects, watching a praying mantis “bouncing and swaying, like it’s hearing a music I’m not yet tuned to” or describing “thumb-size all black bumblebees” and the way they “spin their legs into the base of the flower, shimmy some, swirl their abdomens for good measure, and, exhaling, haul their furry bodies, gold-flecked, to the next bloom for more.”

Gay’s zest for life bursts forth on almost every page. And one of the evolving joys of the collection is how the finely tuned antennae that helped him discover delight in his own life only became more sensitive as the year passed: “It didn’t take me long to learn that the discipline or practice of writing these essays occasioned a kind of delight radar,” he writes. “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.”

It’s that encouragement that makes THE BOOK OF DELIGHTS such an inspiring, life-affirming volume. Reading an essay on just about any subject here, it’s nearly impossible not to focus on the things --- often simple --- in one’s own life that yield pleasures akin to the ones Gay experiences. The critic James Wood once wrote that literature “makes us better noticers of life.” Ross Gay almost certainly will be pleased if his project inspires at least some of his readers to become better noticers, more attentive to the joy that’s there to greet them in their own lives, at least when they take the time to look for it.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on March 1, 2019

The Book of Delights: Essays
by Ross Gay

  • Publication Date: February 12, 2019
  • Genres: Essays, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books
  • ISBN-10: 1616207922
  • ISBN-13: 9781616207922