Algonquin Books, 304 pages | Published September 19, 2023
Based on the stories I’ve heard, my husband’s grandmother was known for her consistently clean plate. Zelma would even lick her finger and collect crumbs from the latex-covered tablecloth around her. As I finished Ross Gay’s new book of essays, The Book of (More) Delights, I felt similarly – doing my best to gather every morsel of language in this catalog of daily joys, not wanting to leave a fragment behind.
Some of my favorite phrases from this volume include: “fluffle of bunnies,” “a bouquet of time,” “swarthy, Semitic Jesus,” and a description of garlic as “your tiny professor of faith, your pungent don of gratitude.” I could go on! The lyrical language of this book is a gift for word lovers.
Gay, an English professor at Indiana University Bloomington, is an award-winning poet. However, he is probably best known for his 2019 New York Times bestseller The Book of Delights, a collection of essays documenting a year where he spent 30 minutes a day writing about something that brought him joy. While his published delights are edited and revised, they retain the unplanned and instinctive nature of their initial capture.
In his 2022 essay collection Inciting Joy, Gay further explores concepts like joy, gratitude and community, but his writing there is longer and more thematic — if you can call his writing thematic when he so delights in interrupting himself with asides and tangents.
The Book of (More) Delights picks up the same practice and style as The Book of Delights. For a year, Gay committed to writing each day about a joy. However, the world is different than it was in 2019, and Gay is too. For one, he has grown in popularity.
An element I find particularly interesting in The Book of (More) Delights is how Gay pushes against being seen as “some kind of sage of delight.” I’ve seen him read live twice in the past year, and both crowded rooms seemed ready to bestow this label on him. Yet, he refutes this title by sharing many things that make him mad — like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade’s “miserable advertisement for global corporate dominion,” like “being the descendant of people who were treated as property; having been driven from your land; having had your neighborhood razed for a highway or an industrial park; having had the top of the mountain where you live blow off; having been disbelieved, or brutalized, in a medical setting; being lied into wars; being lied to by politicians as a matter of course; how they’re kinda always lying…”.
The book contains many delightful, ordinary joys (Dandelions! Squirrels! Militant vegans!), but they are interwoven with expressions of frustration, disappointment, and, yes, anger — a critical rage that “helps us imagine abolishing the conditions by which the rage came to pass rather than take ownership of the conditions and inflicting them on someone else.”
Really, what Gay seems to be calling forward from himself and his readers is a choice to look at the whole picture. We live in a world where the prison-industrial complex and a guinea pig named Oreo Speedwagon exist at the same time, where it is expensive to be poor and a stranger will call you “baby” while telling you directions, where your neighbor will lobby to ban books from the local library and check on you after a car accident. Gay sums up this nuance by advocating for a t-shirt that reads: “Let’s Complicate Our Shit!”
We can all be unkind, stupid, violent or wrong at times, Gay writes. And yet, we all deserve to be loved. We can offer that gift to one another by choosing to regard one another “complicatedly.”
Often, Gay notes, it is artists who break us out of the ingrained grooves of dualistic thinking, “who are more committed maybe to the good than to being ‘good.’” I wonder what it would look like if the church embraced this role — of stepping out of the well-worn grooves of thought, of trying to hold the big picture, of choosing to regard our neighbor rather than judge or venerate them.
Perhaps complicating our shit and holding onto the “despites” not only makes the world a better place now, but also offers the clear-headedness to create a better future.
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