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Encore: Ross Gay Writes 'The Book Of Delights'


When things feel dark, it can be all the more important to seek out and recognize joy. The writer Ross Gay spent a year doing that. Starting on his 42nd birthday, he wrote an essay every day about something delightful - nicknames, fireflies, reckless air quotes. He collected about 100 of those essays in "The Book Of Delights," and this seems like a good moment to rebroadcast our conversation about that book from early last year.


ROSS GAY: Well, one of the things that I realized is that - in the beginning, I thought, oh, man. I'm going to, like, have to look around, like, be, like, really attentive.

SHAPIRO: Just scrounge for delights.

GAY: Yeah, scrounge for delights. Yeah. And then, like, a couple of weeks in, maybe a month or so in, I started to be, like, taking notebooks of, like - that was delightful. That was delightful. That was delightful. That was - so, like, accumulating all of these. You know, I have an essay called "Stacks Of Delights" or something like that.

SHAPIRO: Oh, right - where you're like, clear the decks. You're like...

GAY: I have to clear the deck.

SHAPIRO: I have too much of a backlog.

GAY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So that was something. Like, my sort of attention got cultivated.

SHAPIRO: When you spent that little time every day focusing just on that thing that made you feel love, delight, did it affect the rest of your day?

GAY: Absolutely. I mean, the thing that I also discovered in the course of writing this is that so much of what, to me, sort of inspired or uncovered or unveiled delight was so often personal interactions. So I became acutely aware that delight is sort of a manifestation of interdependence.


GAY: You know, like, the simple and the subtle and the almost accidental - but that's the wrong word - kindnesses that we're constantly in the midst of.

SHAPIRO: Like, one of them that you write about is a high-five from a stranger.

GAY: Totally.

SHAPIRO: You want to read an excerpt from that?

GAY: Totally.

(Reading) So I settled into a coffee shop, took my notebooks out. And I was reading over these delights, transcribing them into my computer. And while I was working, headphones on, swaying to the new De La Soul record - delight which deserves its own entry - I noticed a white girl. She looked 15 but could have been, I suppose, a college student, standing next to me with her hand raised. I looked up, confused, pulled my headphones back. And she said, like a coach or something, working on your paper? Good job to you - high-five.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

GAY: (Reading) You better believe I high-fived that child in her pre-ripped Def Leppard shirt and her itty-bitty Doc Martens, for I love - I delight in - unequivocally pleasant public physical interactions with strangers. What constitutes pleasant, it's no secret, is informed by my largish, male and cisgender body, a body that is also largish, male, cisgender and not white. In other words, the pleasant, the delightful, are not universal. We should all understand this by now.

SHAPIRO: I feel like I get to know you so well reading this almost more than I would if I read a memoir or an autobiography because it's like, I don't need to know where you went to high school...

GAY: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...Or what your passions were as a kid. I know that you love working in your garden. I know what preoccupies your thoughts. It feels very intimate.

GAY: Yeah. I think the dailiness of it makes it like that. You do something every day, and, like - and it's small and sort of apparently or previously insignificant things that - boom - you get the chance to meditate on, you know?


GAY: I have this one in my book about bindweed, and bindweed...

SHAPIRO: Which is a terrible...

GAY: Yes.

SHAPIRO: ...Plague...

GAY: Yes.

SHAPIRO: ...In a garden. People hate it.

GAY: And I'm like, well, I got to go for it, you know? I can't stop thinking about bindweed.

SHAPIRO: Will you read a little bit of that one?

GAY: Yeah, totally. It's - "Bindweed: Delight?" is the title.

SHAPIRO: Question mark.

GAY: Yeah (laughter).

(Reading) There are gardeners reading this who are likely thinking that if I try to turn bindweed - that most destructive, noxious, invasive, life-destroying plant - into a delight, they will bind me and pour glyphosate down my throat. That might be overstatement. All the same, it is a cloying glass-half-full-ness (ph) to wrangle bindweed into a delight, though I am going for it shortly after having spent about 20 minutes pulling it from my newly planted mound of five sweet meat squash - yes, sweet meat - try to say that without smiling - out near the woodpile. Already coming up in that mound is all the buckwheat and clover I planted, which, along with the hopefully soon-to-be thorough coverage of the sweet meat foliage, might crowd out the bindweed. You are right to observe in me the desire not to live with bindweed, which does not in the least negate or supersede my desire to make living with bindweed - which I do - OK.

SHAPIRO: It occurred to me that you started writing these essays in August of 2016. So the book includes the presidential election, the inauguration - huge, news-dominating events. And you're writing about a hummingbird or a pawpaw patch.

GAY: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: I can imagine those huge events in the news that were so dominating so much of our attention might not have caused you a lot of delight.

GAY: Oh, God. Yeah, exactly. And I think, again, that's something that sort of shows in the book. Like, you can see that pull to sort of, like, get completely floored. And I think it's an interesting tension to be like, I'm trying. I'm trying to keep the light. Like, this is my focus right now. This is my discipline.

SHAPIRO: Will you read from one of these essays, called "The Sanctity Of Trains"?

GAY: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: You write about how people leave their bags unattended, trusting that nobody will take them. And then this is the conclusion of that essay.

GAY: Yeah.

(Reading) I suppose I could spend time theorizing how it is that people are not bad to each other, but that's really not the point. The point is that in almost every instance of our lives - our social lives - we are, if we pay attention, in the midst of an almost constant, if subtle, caretaking. Holding doors open, offering elbows at crosswalks, letting someone else go first, helping with the heavy bags, reaching what's too high or what's been dropped, pulling someone back to their feet, stopping at the car wreck, at the struck dog, the alternating merge, also known as the zipper - this caretaking is our default mode, and it's always a lie that convinces us to act or believe otherwise - always.

SHAPIRO: That second always made me wonder if you're convincing or reminding yourself of something you don't always feel.

GAY: Reminding - I think reminding for sure.

SHAPIRO: How often do you need that reminder, that second always?

GAY: Often. And, you know, thankfully, I have beloved friends. You know, I have reminders. And I feel like part of this thing, this project of this book, is training myself that the reminders are everywhere.

SHAPIRO: So you wrote the last of these essays in August of 2017. It was your birthday, just as it was when you started this project.

GAY: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: And then what happened?

GAY: I think I sort of felt like this is something that I'll be doing in one way or another for the rest of my life.

SHAPIRO: Do you mean in a literal, practical way, like continuing to write these essays?

GAY: Well, not continuing - necessarily continuing to write these essays. But this book sort of really helped me to clarify that my objective in my work is to sort of study joy, complicatedly. But that sort of impulse to try to identify what it is that connects us and what it is that is evidence of our interdependence - that's the thing I'm curious about and how my work and how my looking can help to sort of grow that. And I feel like that's something that I sort of was able to articulate in this book. And so, you know, the next books I'm working on - already, I have a couple of books that I'm working on - I can see - like, oh, OK. You're studying how we can love each other better.

SHAPIRO: Ross Gay's new collection of essays is called "The Book Of Delights." It's been great talking with you. Thank you.

GAY: It's been good talking to you. Thank you.

SHAPIRO: That's the writer Ross Gay in a conversation that we first aired in February of 2019.

(SOUNDBITE OF STRFKR SONG, "KAHLIL GIBRAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.