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The Book of (More) Delights: Essays


The Book of (More) Delights: Essays

Photojournalist Walker Evans, best known for his collaboration with the writer James Agee that produced the classic LET US NOW PRAISE FAMOUS MEN, once wrote, “Stare. It is the way to educate your eyes and more. Stare. Pry. Listen. Eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.” In that perspective, Evans and poet and Indiana University English professor Ross Gay are kindred spirits, as Gay reveals in his reflective, lively THE BOOK OF (MORE) DELIGHTS.

Gay’s latest is a sequel to his 2019 THE BOOK OF DELIGHTS and follows the identical format. Beginning on his 47th birthday --- August 1, 2021 --- he devoted himself to the project of producing quickly and by hand a “brief, daily, meandering meditation” that he calls an “essayette,” about some person, object or event that caught his fancy and brought him pleasure. Part of the inspiration he received to produce this second volume was provided by the appreciative feedback he received from readers who were inspired to take up something like his practice. It’s “delight as contagion,” as he describes it.

"...a refreshing reminder that joy surrounds us everywhere... [W]hat we too easily dismiss as ordinary moments can be infused with wonder. As Ross Gay is eager to remind us, it’s all there before us if we’re only open and wise enough to look for it."

As in his first volume, the scope of Gay’s curiosity is simultaneously intimate and expansive. Many of his simple pleasures are discovered no farther away than the streets of his hometown of Bloomington, Indiana. A typical one occurs on the walk he takes one day when he remembers that his bicycle has a flat tire. Along the way he discovers a beautiful stand of figs (he confesses to “fig envy”), receives a gift of several from its owner, and then happily trades a couple for some pawpaws (aka the “Indiana banana”) with a friend. (Fruits, vegetables and other growing things --- like a sunflower sprouting from a crack in mortar --- are a recurring subject, as they were in the first book.) There are other moments of discovery in distant places, as far away as Vermont, where he once hiked with his partner, Stephanie, at Arkansas’s Cave City Watermelon Festival and on the streets of Rome.

For Gay, family is a rich source of delight. One example is his 96-year-old grandmother who enjoyed sitting on her porch (also the last name of her third husband), a memory inspired by the day he encountered a woman who liked to speak to passersby from the branches of a tree. On a Zoom call on the 18th anniversary of his father’s death, he notes how “I favor my father as he looked at the end of his life,” which stimulates him to feel “how everything some days looks like angels.”

As one would expect from a prize-winning poet, Gay is highly attuned to the pleasures and possibilities of language and is fond of creating neologisms like “skitterish,” “unovercomingly” or “flummoxment,” or casually informing readers that a group of bunnies is known as a “fluffle.” He also generously shares his admiration for the work of fellow writers, among them Maggie Nelson (her book THE ARGONAUTS is a favorite), Rebecca Solnit and Eduardo Galeano. Throughout, his dominant attitude is one of playfulness, as he demonstrates in the concluding entry entitled “The Appendix of Brief Delights,” in which he piles over 100 more delights into a single sentence.

Even amidst this profusion of delight, Gay is no Pangloss or Pollyanna, which adds perspective and depth to the collection. In praising Animalympics, the 1980 feature-length cartoon he says he and his brother watched “about ten million times,” he cites it as a “preemptive alternative, an otherwise to the coked-up, cutthroat, capitalistic, crabs-in-a barrel sh-tfest end-times you might have noticed blooming just outside your window. Or, less luckily, inside it.”

Revisiting the subject matter of his essayette “Hole in the Head” from THE BOOK OF DELIGHTS --- the story of a shameful radiation experiment on Black children --- affords him the opportunity to declaim on a laundry list of the evils of America’s current economic and political system. And despite his mother’s joy in catching glimpses of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as she prepares pies and stuffing, Gay, who admits he “adamantly does not enjoy everything,” regards it as “a horror, a miserable advertisement for global corporate dominion and nothing more…”

But THE BOOK OF (MORE) DELIGHTS obviously wouldn’t merit its title if it was an angry or gloomy collection. In fact, it’s a refreshing reminder that joy surrounds us everywhere and doesn’t reside only in peak experiences like the birth of a child or the double rainbow video that’s logged more than 50 million views on YouTube. Whether it’s stopping to truly experience a familiar scene we pass unthinkingly every day, or looking at a loved one or friend as if encountering them for the first time, what we too easily dismiss as ordinary moments can be infused with wonder. As Ross Gay is eager to remind us, it’s all there before us if we’re only open and wise enough to look for it.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on September 22, 2023

The Book of (More) Delights: Essays
by Ross Gay

  • Publication Date: September 19, 2023
  • Genres: Essays, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books
  • ISBN-10: 1643753096
  • ISBN-13: 9781643753096