Friday, January 1, 2021

Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard (2020 reread)

Slightly updated review: 

I was right last year when I said I wouldn’t wait another seventeen years to reread this. I agree with what I said last year, in my review, copied below. I will add that I must have been in a different state of mind this year. I was in less of a mood for Dillard’s style, but since I had decided to put this on the annual reread list I pushed through, and was won over completely by the second chapter. Dillard’s prose is ecstatic and compelling. But moreso, her clear eyed approach to the evil in the world and frank admission of her doubt, while still believing (though I think in later years she may have left the faith) is bracing.

Still Canon, and now in the yearly rotation.

Rereads and Everything Else 2020 49/35

2019 Review: There was a time in the early aughts when I got a lot of flack from certain friends because I was always flogging the work of my three favorite writers at the time: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy and Annie Dillard (and to a lesser extent Frederick Buechner). I’m endlessly hopeful that people will like what I like, sometimes in face of evidence to the contrary. I didn’t manage to convince many of them to read the books. Over the years my affection for O’Connor remained more or less the same, even if other authors (Gene Wolfe, Octavia Butler, Elmore Leonard, Vladimir Nabokov, Kelly Link, Cormac McCarthy (for a time)) eclipsed her. I still like aspects of Percy, but I’ve grown cooler towards him over the years. As for Dillard, I nearly forgot her; or rather, I didn’t return to her as often as Percy or O’Connor. I reread The Writing Life a couple of years ago after remembering the line, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Otherwise it’s been over a decade since I read any of her work.

I’ve been planning to reread Pilgrim at Tinker Creek soon, having recently purchased the audiobook. This brought Dillard to mind and I remembered an online friend including Holy the Firm among his favorite books. I pulled it off the shelf to read a couple lines. I read the entire thing in one sitting. It’s short, so that’s not some great achievement time commitment wise. But the book is a marvel.

Dillard’s writing is Psalm-like. It is in an ecstatic mode intended to evoke awe at nature, often turning that towards God. That is what attracted me to her writing at the time. What discomfited me was how her God never really fit squarely with Christianity. As she said in a later work, For the Time Being, she was spiritually promiscuous. Much of her work seemed borderline pantheistic. Like Frederick Buechner, she dealt very frankly with doubt. I last read Holy the Firm at 2002. At the time I was devout and a stickler for orthodoxy. I was just then learning to doubt and feeling the first rumblings of the unease with Evangelicalism that ultimately led to me leaving it. I wasn’t entirely ready for the book at the time. Reading it again now without the need to try to squeeze it into an orthodox shape was a profound experience.

The three essays here contain some indelible images. A moth flies into a flame. A plane wrecks and injures an innocent child. From these Dillard crafts what are essentially prose poems. They are worth reading just for the prose. But her act of looking so closely at these images forces the reader to observe their own surroundings in a similar way.

 I will not wait seventeen years to read this again.

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