“One day last July, feeling delighted and compelled to both wonder about and share that delight, I decided it might feel nice, even useful, to write a daily essay about something delightful,” writes poet Ross Gay at the beginning of “The Book of Delights.” The result of a yearlong journal, the book compiles 102 curious, idiosyncratic short essays that journey through gardens, classrooms, restaurants and airports, chronicling daily delights along the way.
In many of them, Gay is in public, visibly enjoying life. He describes himself as “an enthusiastic gesticulator,” pointing to what delights him, putting his hand to his heart, slapping surfaces while laughing loudly. He stops what he’s doing to give his full attention and appreciation to sources of joy: a flower he’s never seen before, a praying mantis on a cafe’s outdoor table, a crow in a shallow creek. One of the biggest delights in reading “The Book of Delights” is simply imagining people passing by, seeing Gay — notably tall, often wearing bright, floral-patterned clothing and elaborate scarves — soaking in the small beauties of the world.
Through these observed delights, we get a peek into Gay’s particular worldview. “[I]n almost every instance of our lives, our social lives, we are, if we are paying attention, in the midst of an almost constant, if subtle, caretaking,” he writes. “Holding open doors. Offering elbows at crosswalks. Letting someone else go first. Helping with the heavy bags. Reaching what’s too high, or what’s been dropped. Pulling someone back to their feet … This caretaking is our default mode and it’s always a lie that convinces us to act or believe otherwise. Always.”
Not only does he believe in a subtle human selflessness, he also sees people as connected by an inner childlike tenderness. In one essay, Gay describe being on a plane as passengers take turns playing with and speaking baby talk to a very social toddler wandering the aisles. Gay writes, “I was so flabbergasted by the endurance of love and delight incited by this child … that I found myself, despite the very engrossing book I was reading about something horrible, laughing out loud and babbling with them and convinced again of something deeply good in us.”
In another passage, he reflects on a paragraph-long list of nicknames he’s had over the course of his life — including Bigs, Babygay, Booger, Tall Drink and Dr. Hot Sauce. “I don’t know exactly what nicknames mean,” he writes, “though a quick reading of mine, and the abundance of the b sound, that babiest of sounds, makes me think it might be primal. I know that I rarely call the people I love by their names. I call them, if it is OK 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. But, on the other hand, how lovely all my mothers. All my babies.”
The generosity Gay greets the world with doesn’t come off as blindly optimistic or naive. It feels hard-earned. As often as he’s finding delight in gardens, pop music and interactions with strangers, he’s reflecting on the loss of loved ones, institutional racism and toxic masculinity. He recounts the prejudice his parents faced as an interracial couple in the early 1970s. While drinking an espresso on the stoop of a coffee shop and basking in the sun’s rays, he’s asked to leave because the owner of the neighboring pawnshop believes Gay — simply by being a large, black man sitting — is scaring off customers. His daily delights aren’t always delightful. But his optimism carries more weight because of the trials he endures. He’s well aware of humans at their worst, and yet he chooses to seek out delight.
Since “The Book of Delights” is essentially a diary with a singular focus, the book is naturally a little loose — sometimes very loose. But it’s also a reminder of what the personal essay is best at: finding the profound in the mundane. The casual route Gay takes into profundity may not work for everyone, but his delight is infectious. It’s hard to read Gay and not to be won over.
“The Book of Delights: Essays” by Ross Gay, Algonquin Books, 288 pp., $23.95