Shea Serrano spent today dreaming up new ways to make you smile. The New York Times–bestselling author can’t help it—he transmits joy like an antenna issues radio waves.
Whether on the page, or in rapid-fire tweets dispersed to his 385,000 followers, the San Antonio native revels in the small things. Except, for Serrano, everything is a big deal.
Another man’s trivial is Serrano’s transcendent as he holds court on music, movies, sports, or the perfection of his fellow Mexican-Americans. Even minor cultural phenomena brim with enough potential energy to define a moment or alter our common trajectory.We deny something of the Imago Dei within us when we lose touch with minor, momentary, and molecular delights.
Writing for Grantland, a site many pop culture–hounds still mourn, Serrano’s effortless charisma won him a national audience. The currents of that momentum buoyed the first of his three consecutive bestsellers, 2015’s The Rap Yearbook.
The Rap Yearbook dots the is and crosses the ts of Serrano’s signature style. Specificity rules, as he selects the most important rap song of each year from 1979 to 2014. Weaving in vibrant illustrations and footnotes that would make David Foster Wallace drool, Serrano treats each track like a painting from the Dutch Golden Age; he preserves context while peering close enough to see every brushstroke.
The Rap Yearbook also represents the writer’s first collaboration with illustrator Arturo Torres, whose soulful, subtly hilarious style matches Serrano step for step. Only this pair could graph the number of times N.W.A. used a given swear word on “Straight Outta Compton” or suitably parse the hubris of Kanye West. (One of Torres’s illustrations portrays Ye alongside Jesus with the header “Is Kanye Really God?” West says “yes,” but it’s a “no” from the Nazarite.)
Serrano sincerely enjoys these exercises, yet never takes himself too serious. In The Rap Yearbook, he cedes the end of each chapter to colleagues who present their own contenders. Serrano delivers each cultural judgment with plumage puffed out, yet is self-aware enough to recognize we all throw our weight behind matters of taste.
Serrano and Torres surf similarly specific waves through 2017’s Basketball (And Other Things) and last year’s Movies (And Other Things). Both books are billed as “a collection of questions asked, answered and illustrated.” Serrano poses queries that would never occur to even the most diehard fan, then presents what seems to be the only logical answer.
Lighting single sticks of dynamite until they become big-budget special effects, Movies (And Other Things) features chapters such as “Is the Movie Better, the Same, or Worse with The Rock in It?” “Were the Jurassic Park Raptors Misunderstood?” and “Which Movie Had the More Intense Opening: Face/Off or Finding Nemo?”
Once again, Serrano’s footnotes are canon. Within the fine print, he considers Keanu Reeves’s best on-screen haircut (Speed), the best 60 seconds in Julia Stiles’s career (the end of 10 Things I Hate about You), and why the presence of a blind guitarist exponentially increases a movie’s watchability.
Serrano extends his love letter to big-screen villains, who he finds as fascinating and worthy of affection as our movie heroes; expresses as much interest in the Fast and Furious franchise as critically beloved fare; and, living out the stuff of a million podcasts and late-night conversations, spends several chapters rectifying past Academy Award slights.
Both (And Other Things) books lean into revisionist history. But unlike, say, Quentin Tarantino’s wide-screen revenge fantasies, Serrano’s do-overs bend curiosity into compassion.
In Basketball (And Other Things), he builds a “Frankenplayer” from the traits of memorable ballers, convenes a draft for fictional players from TV and film, and asks how a player’s legacy changes if you change their name. LeBron Jones fares worse in this fantastical scenario, while Wilt Chamberlord becomes “even more dominant.” The newly christened Toby Bryant, Allen Iverdad, and Juan Stockton elicit laughter with every read.
And, as a lifelong fan of the Phoenix Suns, Torres’s portrait of a crying Charles Barkley cradling the NBA championship trophy (in a chapter where Serrano visualizes alternate futures for players who never won it all) genuinely moves me.
Serrano never writes himself into the corner of cool or enjoys anything from a safe distance. He feels his way through his favorite pastimes the way the rest of us do—all in, living for each frame, each snare hit, each mid-range jumper. Reveling, then recognizing the same enthusiasm in us, he delights to share these experiences.
This generosity expresses itself most breathlessly on Twitter. There, Serrano has cultivated a community that roots hard for him because they know he’s rooting right back. He drops PDFs of essays on The Office and Scrubs, creating an electricity that mimics reactions to a surprise Beyonce release. Then, he uses the same platform to promote GoFundMe pages for struggling fans, boosting the signal well beyond its natural reach.
Serrano engages in encouraging back-and-forth with followers who are preparing for high-risk, high-reward situations: job interviews, certification exams, marriage proposals. His sermons become their self-talk, as he spurs them on with the maxim “Shoot your shot.”
When these readers find the bottom of the net, they return to Twitter and apprise Serrano of their success, as if his stake in the matter rivals that of their friends and family. Serrano trades enthusiasm for enthusiasm and is known to respond, “My chest,” as if his heart is about to burst over a stranger’s personal triumph.
Success and happiness are not zero-sum games. Treating joy like a renewable resource, Serrano interrupts our culture of competition, lightening an atmosphere thick with fear that someone else is making off with your cut of contentment. “help someone else get a W i promise it won’t take away from your Ws,” Serrano tweeted in June, putting language to his lifestyle.
Most of us struggle to parse the difference between happiness and joy; Christians particularly wrestle with these degrees of distinction. We baptize one word in holiness, distrusting the other. One is fleeting, the other defined as a steadying force.
My own white, evangelical tradition equates piety and sobriety. In order to be a serious citizen of this world, and the next, we must cast aside emotional ephemera to sharpen eternal focus.
Our feelings can deceive us, and living from high to high leaves us exhausted. But we deny something of the Imago Dei within us when we lose touch with minor, momentary, and molecular delights. Surely the God of creatures great and small—who called even his tiniest innovation good—wants us to rejoice in what others overlook. He experiences no dissatisfaction or dissonance when we spontaneously combust over the smallest joy.
So delight in your morning cup of coffee, cheer your neighbor’s new job, exult over a walk-off home run, feel a particularly funky bassline rattle your chest, stop long enough to steep in the stillness of a forest. All of it catalyzes joy; all of it approximates praise.
I don’t know what to call Serrano’s state of being. It might be happiness, but I think it’s joy. Definitions produced by church and culture line up in affirmation: dynamic yet steady, spontaneous yet repeatable.
Ultimately, the term doesn’t matter as much as the way of life it describes. If, like Serrano, you can manage to find delight in every little thing, you’ll end up a little closer to OK, a little closer to God.