Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard

Teaching a Stone to Talk is a book that evangelicals and agnostics both might read with pleasure, underlining different sentences, neither able to shake the feeling that they might be too certain of their vision. They might have decided hastily. Or at least that’s how it reads to me, who has read it in both capacities. Dillard herself rode that line. She later left the faith. The tension is there throughout her early work. She writes about the world in hymn-like fashion, and while it was never certain which god the hymn praised (she pulled from many religious texts) in this book she clearly lands as some kind of a Christian. Though, by her own account, she was virtually unrecognizable to certain other Christians (see On a Hill Far Away, collected here). I could equally see representatives of both groups rejecting it out of hand.

This is the only book Dillard wrote that she was willing to call an essay collection in the 10 year afterward to Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, despite much of her work seeming to fit that template. And it is a great collection, filled with lines I want to quote to anyone at hand. As in her earlier books, this is written in an ecstatic mode; almost as if they were extended prose poems or psalms. I had a lit professor years ago who hated her writing, and I understand that reaction, even though I couldn’t disagree with it more. Knowing that professor, I suspect he didn’t like the excess of it, or the clear belief in some form of the supernatural that it embodied. I love both of those things. I wouldn’t want every book to do what hers do, but I’m very grateful to have these.

Like her other early books, these essays are meditations on, or close readings of the world and the people she encounters. At least in the three early books I reread this year, she is concerned with seeing the world around her; of concentrating on it and using it as fuel for spiritual practice. I really appreciate this. In An Expedition to the Pole she relates communal spiritual practice in a church with actual expeditions to the poles and ends up with an almost magical realist scene. In Life on the Rocks: Galapagos, she talks about her trip to that island. The final essay, Aces and Eights, is about a vacation with her daughter and functions as a meditation on death and the passage of time. These were the standout essays for me on this pass. Really, though, the whole thing is worth the time.

Highly Recommended.

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