I read a lot. 110 books so far this year, with another three weeks and a TBR (To Be Read) stack of 6 left to go. It’s not a new thing: I always won the personal pan pizza in the Pizza Hut Book-It elementary school challenge. Reading is like breathing – I cannot imagine life without it. I used to fret about what I was reading, trying to stay abreast of the trends in literary fiction and reading only the Important Books of the year. It turns out, though, that a lot of the Important Books are also Soul Killing ones. My friend Jess gave me that line years ago, when we were trying to find books that weren’t written by middle aged white men with chips on their shoulder. “These guys kill my soul,” she said. I read a lot of Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides, and while I don’t really ever regret reading, I do wish I’d had a broader booklist back then.
I’ve since expanded my reading wheelhouse. I read way more women and people of color, books in translation and non-fiction. But I also settled in to middle age by giving myself permission to read gobs of romance novels and mysteries. Gobs of them. They are charming, sweet, certain to be resolved, and they go down easy. They remind me why I learned to love reading in the first place: because it’s FUN. Maybe another hope post is about the joy of those books this year.
But today’s post (on the 3rd Sunday of Advent, known as “Gaudete Sunday,” the Sunday of JOY) is about the best book I read in 2022: Ross Gay’s “Inciting Joy.” It’s so good that even though I spent a good chunk of this fall culling my bookshelves and getting rid of over 100 books, I have just about convinced myself to go buy a physical copy of this one that I read as a library e-book. It’s good enough to own.
Ross Gay is a poet and a teacher, and his writing is gorgeous and precise. His earlier book of essays, called “The Book of Delights,” was also a stunner, and I’d been looking forward to this one for a while. He writes about incitements toward joy, including grief, gardening, cover songs and basketball. Like the best poetry, Gay draws deep meaning from what most of us pass by as mundane, insisting that joy is not something we have to go out and discover but something embedded within everyday human living. He writes about what joy feels like, in his body, and he writes about where he feels it, places that include the community orchard he helped plant and his father’s deathbed. He writes long, meandering explorations of the best cover songs in existence and the joy of sharing ideas. His footnotes are an entire category of joy in and of themselves, and he is very, very funny.
“My hunch,” Gay writes, “is that joy is an ember for or precursor to wild and unpredictable and transgressive and unboundaried solidarity…My hunch is that joy, emerging from our common sorrow…might depolarize us and de-atomize us enough that we can consider what, in common, we love.”
I am learning, through this writing, about the ways that hope and joy are not external to our lives, not something we set out searching to find and obtain, but inherent, embedded, co-existent with our lives as they are right now. In an interview with The Nation, Gay says that he is “arguing for joy as a rigorous emotion that excludes no one and the repression of which is a kind of alienation, a suggestion that we ought to be alienated from one another. I think we have a profoundly immature idea of emotional states and have developed a sensibility that suggests sorrow and delight cannot coexist.”
Sorrow and delight, joy and pain, hope and despair not only can but also do co-exist. I have had trouble living that way these last few years, watching people I love grow sick and die, global pandemics sweep across the globe, religious institutions fail spectacularly at meeting the moment, politics get all the joy leeched out of them by either overly earnest or profoundly greedy people. What Ross Gay does is what Reservation Dogs does is what Jesus does in his parables is what, I now realize, I am trying to do in these dashed-off daily reflections: to remind us that THIS, right HERE, these bodies in this place at this moment, are the real thing. That we are capable of joy and delight even alongside the grief and struggle, that in fact, that mash-up of weeping and rejoicing is the only way hope has ever been, the only way hope will ever be.