Bill Peak is the Communications Manager and all-encompassing “Library Guy” at the Talbot County Free Library on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. He is the author of the novel The Oblate’s Confession (2014). Bill writes a monthly article for The Star-Democrat about working at the Talbot County Free Library. Here, he reviews The Book of Delights: Essays by Ross Gay, our 2021 One Maryland One Book selection.
We will announce details of our One Maryland One Book Author Tour: check back here or sign up for our enewsletter. This essay was originally published in The Star-Democrat on August 1, 2021.
One Maryland One Book—the Maryland Humanities program in which people all across the state read the same book at the same time—may well be the most popular program the Talbot County Free Library offers. Of course our younger patrons will disagree with me about this, extolling in its place Children’s Librarian Laura Powell’s Story Time, but every year hundreds of their older co-patrons check out and enjoy a copy of the One Maryland One Book. Which is not to say all is sweetness and light. From time to time we do hear a grumble. Pretty much every year at least one person asks me, “Why are the One Maryland One Books always so upsetting?”
Well, I think the answer to that question has to do with the program’s primary goal: “to bring together diverse people in communities across the state through the shared experience of reading the same book.” One of the easiest ways to bring people together and get them actively sharing their understanding of a book is to stir them up, and one of the easiest ways to stir someone up is to challenge his or her presumptions about a particular issue. We have a saying back home in Kentucky: “It ain’t the things you don’t know what gets you in trouble, it’s the things you know for sure what ain’t so.” But I have good news for our loyal One Maryland One Book fans, I can pretty much guarantee you this year’s selection—while it may challenge a presumption or two—will make you smile, make you laugh, and make you especially glad you were alive and kicking when Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights got published.
For The Book of Delights—trust me—is just that. Ross Gay is a poet, a college professor, and one very wise man. “One day last July,” he writes, “feeling delighted and compelled to both wonder about and share that delight, I decided that it might feel nice, even useful, to write a daily essay about something delightful.” For the next year, from his 42nd birthday to his 43rd, Gay carried a notebook with him wherever he went, and every time he saw or experienced something that delighted him, he sat down and tried to describe it. The result is this year’s One Maryland One Book—page after page of everyday charms that too many of us (your intrepid reporter included) fail to fully appreciate.
Let me share a single example out of the hundreds Gay offers. At some point during his year of delights, Gay participated in a parade in support of women’s rights. As the mass of mostly women and a few men marched along, a little boy who’d gotten separated from his mother appeared in their midst crying loudly. The crowd immediately rallied around the child, offering him hugs, asking what his mommy was wearing, and assuring him everything would be all right. Gay, who’s a tall man, picked up the little boy and placed him on his shoulders so that he could see out over the crowd … at which point the crowd’s chant changed from “We Shall Overcome” to “Find his mommy, find his mommy!” Which, of course, produced Mommy pretty quickly. Child and mother were reunited to the relief of one and all, but it was Gay’s description of the brief ride he gave the boy that delighted me, and reminded me of another.
Years and years ago, when I was young and working shrimp boats out of Tampa, Florida, trying to live up to my Ernest Hemingway-inspired expectations of what a writer’s life should be, I agreed one day, while in port, to accompany a young married couple and their little boy to the zoo. The Tampa Zoo, at least in those days, was nothing to brag about, a small park with cages consisting of iron bars and bare concrete pads—in most of which an animal paced back and forth pining for lost horizons. Still, we made the best of the sunny Saturday and, on a whim, as we walked along, I offered the little boy a ride on my shoulders.
I would have been about twenty-two then, little more than a boy myself, and it was, I’m quite certain, the first time I ever carried a child on my shoulders. But the child, in the way of children, was perfectly comfortable with his mount, patting my head as we moved from cage to cage and, occasionally, kicking my chest enthusiastically with his heels. I had long since forgotten those kicks and that day till I read Gay’s book, read of his experience in the parade, and it all came back to me—the sun, the cages, that little boy squealing in the air overhead—and it was a delight, a delight that, had I examined it more closely at the time, probably would have made me realize I wasn’t cut out to be Ernest Hemingway. Thank God. And I thank Ross Gay for bringing it all back to me, for making the day I carried a child, whose name I no longer recall, something special, something I will not, I hope, ever forget again.
Via Zoom, on Tuesday, September 7, at 6 p.m., and again on Friday, September 10, at 2 p.m., I will host a discussion of Ross Gay’s delight-provoking book. If you would like to participate, a few minutes before the appointed hour, please go to https://marylandlibraries.zoom.us/j/93737632015 and then type in 679571 as your passcode. I will also host the Easton Book Group’s Zoom discussion of the book on Monday, September 20, at 6:30 p.m. This group is open to all, so if that date works better for you, please email Susan Sherman at firstname.lastname@example.org no later than 5:30 p.m. on September 20 to let her know you would like to participate. You’re going to love Ross Gay’s delightful book.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on our blog do not necessarily reflect the views or position of Maryland Humanities or our funders.