“If we sink a spoon into that fact, into the duff between us, we will find it teeming.”

This month, the entire JMRL community was invited to read Ross Gay’s book of essayettes, The Book of Delights, as part of our annual Same Page Community Read. The small, vibrantly-colored book was expected by many to be light and sweet. It was a surprise, then, to find essays dealing with microaggressions, the destruction of the planet, illness, dying on airplanes, and slavery and its ramifications. And of course, the one with his mother. We all know the one. 

At times shocking, at times puzzling, and at times unusual, the stream of consciousness tumbled into beauty, as tiny observed details entangled with big ideas like connection, softness in vulnerability and love, and miracles. 

This book is best read slowly, perhaps one essay per sitting, for a total of three or four essays per day, at most. We also agreed, those of us who had listened to the audiobook or searched for Ross Gay reading on YouTube, that hearing the essays read was an outstanding experience – the run-on sentences and digressions fall away, so it’s like listening to a friend talk about his day. As witnessed on March 25 at “A Conversation With Ross Gay” at the Jefferson School City Center, he glows when he reads, and the reader/listener is reminded viscerally, through his voice, that these delights belong to him.

While these essays are personal in nature, they also serve as social commentary, usually proclaimed most boldly and unapologetically in a tightly-cinched ending. Finishing an essay feels like a swift ascent, as Gay soars us up from something immediate and temporal to an idea as limitless as the sky. The essays dance, and we as readers race, or slow down, to follow their every move, wondering, anticipating, what is the true delight going to be here? First we think the delight is food, and all it represents, and then Gay shifts to the storekeeper and we think it may be the way she said hello, or what home really means. Then we’re talking about how our bodies interact, even when we don’t touch, or barely touch, and what does that mean about us as a people, and what are the different ways we can think about touch, and how might that make us happier, more delighted? (I think I’ve decided that run-on sentences are delights). Finally, the umbrella opens up, inside the cafe, and the delight is our capacity to reject the notion of humiliation in favor of self-love and tenderness. Thought-provoking, applicable, challenging, delightful. 

Because so many of the essays are provocative and memorable, and so many readers came to meetings with tabs and post-its and notes, many book clubs found discussion to be highly focused. One reader said, “he’s [Gay] going for something bigger than sunsets.” Another said, “this book imprinted something on me.” While not universally beloved in execution, the idea of The Book of Delights was exciting for readers, and many of us adopted new practices or deepened existing practices: gratitude journals, writing by hand, noticing small details, and finding delight. 

Be sure to listen to the latest episode of JMRL’s podcast, On the Same Page, “That Notebook Might Be Magic,” which features an exclusive interview with Ross Gay. You can also watch the recorded event, “A Conversation with Ross Gay,” on the Virginia Humanities YouTube page.

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