(Book Review) The Book of Delights by Ross Gay

By Lisa Folkmire

Everything sucks. We know this. I spent the past month avoiding social media and only checking my NPR app because I was that tired of everything sucking. Gloom and doom sells, which is part of the problem. Every day includes another press release of shootings and loss of rights and blatant racism or the evil banalities of capitalism worse than the day before.

I am not about to say “but there is still the good.” I mean, we all know that every one of us can go home and give our animals a little “scritch-a-scratch” behind the ear or order a caramel macchiato frappuccino at Starbucks on our fifteen at work, but these things don’t stop that constant worry of what’s to come. So what’s the use of saying “but there is still good”?

It’s fair to say that I was a little drunk when I picked up Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights. My fiance and I had been out for his birthday, and decided to stop in our favorite bookstore after a couple of drinks. I only mention that I was a little drunk because that is, in fact, one of my favorite delights: wandering a well organized bookstore just after a busy rush with a little bit of wine to loosen all financial worries.

I dropped way more than I budgeted on that bookstore visit. Not that I really should what with my current income and student loans and the brand new car I keep claiming I will own soon, now a wedding (on top of many many friend weddings) and eventually a home. But all of that aside, the important thing is that I came home with a book that I needed.

The Book of Delights is part journal, part psalm, part lesson. I would almost place it under “self help” as in “how to be decent in 2019” or “how to keep it together when the world is (seemingly) falling apart: the poet’s guide.” Gay isn’t there to give you a step-by-step list of things to think about. He’s there to remind us that there is a dichotomy within the bad.

When I started the book, I thought that maybe I would read a passage a day. Let the delights slowly seep in, make it last. I found myself instead referring to the book as though it were water, that this book would set my own mind to find delights in the day-to-day, that if I read enough delights to combat the news, I would become a delightful thinker, somebody who internally resembled less Grumpy Cat (may she rest in peace) and more the bubbly personality I once was.

It may not have had that full effect on me (that would probably require me to give up my love of truly dour novels and constant study of the Tudor family), but it was the paradigm shift that I needed in order to begin my new goal to be truly present in life.

Gay writes of the good as his focal point, but constantly reminds the reader that this good was found by sifting through the bad. You take what you get, he notes, and you make of it whatever you can. Sounds easy enough. But Gay takes this to the extreme, covering issues such as racism, sexism, classism. Every story is a microscopic look behind the social structures that provide the news stories we see every day.

At one point he mentions a lavender infinity scarf that he has grown to love, noting, “I kid you not, ten years ago I no sooner would have worn this plush purple thing around my neck than jump off a bridge.” Gay uses the objects he delights in–the “good”–as focal points for issues with society–the “bad”–noting the ingrained misogyny that led him to think that he couldn’t wear a scarf because of its color. He takes the scarf and his love for it and notes what it brings out in him, “I want to be softer, I’m trying to say” (92-93).

There are many moments that I remember from this book. A father and his sons wandering out to watch fireflies light up in the field behind an apartment complex. A flight attendant brushing off the collar of her coworker. A man laughing at himself as he opens his umbrella indoors, having thought he was already outside. Gay, an ardent gardener, taking a tomato seedling on a plane and his fellow travelers checking in on it, as though it were his actual baby. His memories so easily becomes your own, the writing itself is so wonderfully conversational.

I found it funny, also, how many of Gay’s entries come from plane rides, layovers in airports, traveling of sorts, something he notes in the introduction. Maybe he writes so much about delight during this state of movement because it gives him the option to notice everything at once, a literal big picture when looking out the window of the plane and taking it for what it is, whether you delight in it or not. Like every time I fly over metro-Detroit, where I grew up and reside, and try to pick out the different suburbs I knew so well from the grid system mile roads. Or maybe that’s just my poetic self attempting to take over reality again. Perhaps he wrote on planes and trains so often because he happened to be on planes and trains so much throughout the year.

The real beauty in Ross’s book isn’t so much his list of wondrous things (which is in itself a necessary kaleidoscope of awe) but instead a fountain of raw human emotion mixed with blatant reality. His refusal to edit out his self evaluations and his extremely personal stories to retell his days during and after the 2016 election (the book runs from August 1st 2016–August 1st 2017) brings more than any archival of news prints ever could.

The most accurate I can call this book is magic. It’s neither a recording of thoughts, a diary clearly just for Ross, or an offering to his readers. It’s more a necessary selection of moments captured in an extremely pleasantly bound book (it’s nearly pocket sized, which I also find quite delightful).

I can’t quite tell you what it is that drew me in, but I can insist that you read it, that in doing so, you take a moment to breathe in the moment. Everything sucks, we know this. But some things are worth delighting in, and this book is most definitely one of them.

One comment

  1. I loved hearing your reaction to this one! I loved this book, it gave me so much to think about in daily life and be appreciative of. I’ve been much more aware of what gives me delight, too. This book was such a gift. I’m glad to hear it meant so much to you too!


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