By the Book: Ross Gay’s “Book of Delights” and the ordinary joys of college life

By the Book is a new biweekly blog about the real-life revelations that can come with class readings.

One day in late August this past semester, I considered skipping my Readings in Contemporary Nonfiction class. I laid in bed at my mother’s house, 20 minutes north of Oakland, and stared at the ceiling of my childhood bedroom. Even in that late summer heat, I kept my windows shut, my blinds closed and my single-unit AC off. The sickly green stars adhered by my father 20 years prior glowed over my unmoving body. 

It was the five-year anniversary of my rape. To leave the comfort of my childhood home on the dreadful date always felt an impossible task, but that day’s assignment seemed especially cruel — discussing “The Book of Delights.”

A project undertaken by Pennsylvania native Ross Gay, “The Book of Delights” is a collection of essays, one for nearly every day of a year in his life, centered on a different “delight.” Some of the essays — at which I’d glanced before throwing the book across the room where it collided with my dresser — are self-explanatory: “Flower in the Curb,” “Pecans,” “Praying Mantis.”

Beads of sweat dripped through the curtain of my hair to the small of my back. I could not remember ever feeling delight. Indeed, for our required 600-word essay on a personal delight, I’d only mustered up this: “I am throwing an all-out motherf*cking absolute Sack of Troying, Jay Gatsby Old-Sporting, Floribama Shoring, Black and White Balling, Dick Van Dyke Rocking, Eagles Won the Superbowling, Ross Gay Delighting party when Woody Allen f*cking dies.” 

Fantasizing about the downfalls of sexual predators was the only thing that made me smile around my anniversary. Even that was not true delight, but a vindictive echo, something that satisfied for a moment before dissipating. Until I was, again, staring at glow-in-the-dark constellations and feeling tears slide slowly down the sides of my face. How could I experience delight myself when the vessel through which all things are experienced — the body — was not my own? When it was used for someone else’s grotesque delight?

Two hours before class, I picked “The Book of Delights” back up with the intention to eviscerate it. In some places, I did. One hastily-scrawled annotation in “Praying Mantis” simply reads “Get a f*cking life” in my shaky black cursive. 

I flipped to one of the next essays entitled “Joy is Such a Human Madness,” my pen at the ready. I saw Zadie Smith mentioned, however, and begrudgingly kept reading out of respect for one of my favorite writers. By the end of the third page, I was sitting up in bed, tears rolling down my face faster and faster. 

Gay expands on Smith’s titular assertion — he wonders how joy exists in our world, one in which “Every person … lives with some profound personal sorrow.” He ruminates on whether that’s the point — that joy cannot exist without the absence of it. It’s an old argument, maybe, asserted in a hundred different ways — life is only good because it is temporary, you couldn’t appreciate happy moments without ever being sad, dark times only brighten the light. 

It felt especially pertinent to me then, though, and especially pertinent to college students holistically. Almost every friend I have in college is perpetually exhausted. Between classes, work, internships, grad school applications, social life and the pressure to carve out space for yourself in the world — something I find both terrifying and awesome — it is so hard to delight in small things. We don’t see praying mantises or flowers growing in curbs because Pitt is destroying our green space, or because we walk to class in a frenzy, frantically rereading the notes from last lecture. We don’t have the money to buy the fresh fruit and herbs Gay adores, instead living off crackers and instant noodles and the occasional ‘treat’ of overpriced fast food.

Even on the days in which I am not embroiled in a battle against my memories, I have trouble finding delights. It is much more en vogue among college students to list our various complaints — justified as they are. All of my friends, at one point or another, have finished their rants about obligations with a weary, joking, ‘I’m going to kill myself.’ It’s strange to me how casual suicide has wormed its way into the lexicon of college students so easily. If joy is such a human madness, I don’t know how ‘human’ we can consider college students.

After finishing Gay’s essay, I made myself rise, moving with the weariness of a woman four times my age, and drove to campus. Even weighed down by my own tragedy, I thought of Gay’s writing, how there would be 20 other people staring back at me who each posessed their own profound personal sorrow.

After class, I wrote a list of delights:

1) the way Jen Lee smiles at our TA and says “Hey, you,” like she didn’t just see her Tuesday, like seeing her is the most serendipitous thing to ever happen 

2) a sip of the strawberry smoothie offered to me by the friend I passed on O’Hara 

3) feeling more delight as the days move forward

“Joy is Such a Human Madness” concludes with this: “What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying. I’m saying: what if that is joy?”

A community of sorrowful people producing joy — sharing their burdens to appreciate the small things and find in them delight. What better place to do that than college? Than Pitt? Why not strive, even through darkness, to see small things — today, two strangers walking from Cathy, one darts forward to snap a hem from the other’s dress, an unstoppable urge for kindness — and delight in them, even as the weight of the world presses down on us?

The next time you feel inclined to sit in your dark room and suffocate in your sadness, staring at the ceiling, try your very hardest to think of the last small thing that brought you delight. Go from there.