Reviewed by Andrew Taylor-Troutman
The other day, I saw a birch tree and immediately thought of its bark as “curling like pages of old books.” Reading Ross Gay will put his words in your head.
The Book of (More) Delights is the sequel to the author’s best-seller. He practiced the habit of writing about one thing that delighted him each day for an entire year. He calls them essayettes. They read to me like a hybrid between a journal entry and prose poem.
At one of his readings, I heard Gay claim that he is a “simile guy” and his latest book of prose bears this playful poetic touch. For instance, sweet potatoes are nestled under the ground “like a fluffle of bunnies.” This is delightful. Also, his description of a friend’s laugh as “like a gravelly hot air balloon … sometimes like a tire popping.”
When Gay happens upon a squirrel face first in a front porch Halloween pumpkin — “that plump butt, those long-footed rear legs, and that tail, buoyant, flamboyant” — he memorably describes the creature as devouring a seed “like me eating a little pizza.” Delight!
When reading these essayettes, I often found myself humming the Shaker hymn, “Simple Gifts.” A gift to be simple, a gift to be free. In Gay’s words, “There are so many simple pleasures, simple delights, and maybe the goal, the practice, is to be delighted especially by them, the simplest of things.”
But despite what a reader might think, Gay protests that he is not “some kind of sage of delight.” He also reflects upon “un-delights” such as the Macy’s Day Parade as “a miserable advertisement for global corporate dominion.” He compiles a litany of un-delights: “being the descendent of people who were treated as property; having been driven from your land; having had your neighborhood razed for a highway or industrial park; having had the top of the mountain where you live blown off; having been disbelieved, or brutalized, in a medical setting …” Gay goes on.
The paradox about this book of delights is that Gay returns again and again to the topic of death. Anyone who has ever visited someone in Hospice will deeply resonate with the chapter “At the Door.” When Gay’s grandmother dies, he eulogizes her, in part, by delighting at the recollection of the unique way that she said his name. His writing brought tears to my eyes. Might that, too, be a delight?
Just as another of his essay collections, Inciting Joy, made clear that joy is not the absence of sorrow, reading Gay helps me realize that simple delight is found among complex realities, including struggles. He refers to a “completely unspeakable difficult time” when “the awful … was really rattling around in my mind like a maraca.” (Note another delightful simile!) Gay then describes a simple spoon, but it occasions this reflection on a profound friendship: “no small balm … to have a friend pointing out, too, what is not only un-awful, but truly beautiful, the truly beautiful human-made, the human made beautiful…”
The short chapters of this book can be read quickly. I tried to slow down and savor the words, which I suspect is also a way to look for delight in my life. This book has taught me that curiosity is a close cousin to delight. And reminds me of the deep, abiding delight to contribute to the delight of others: “It is … some delight when a kind who has a hard time becomes a kid who’s having a good time in no small part thanks to you throwing that kid in the air again and again.”
Copyright©2023 by Andrew Taylor-Troutman. All Rights Reserved.