For the Time Being - Annie Dillard

This book was a gift from our friend Emily who was dismayed that I had never read anything by Annie Dillard and felt it needed immediate correction. It's a difficult book to describe, because it's an odd collection of quotes, stories, and reflections. For example, each chapter consists of these sections, in this order: Birth, Sand, China, Clouds, Numbers, Israel, Encounters, Thinker, Evil, Now. If it doesn't sound like it makes for a cohesive book, you would be surprised (as I was). It's a little disconcerting at first, the way she suddenly shifts ot a different topic, or offers a quote from some ancient Chinese scholar or a modern rabbi with no context or interpretation. But you do get an overall sense that ties things together, something that's a bit haunting, a feeling that maybe the way we think about God isn't even close to accurate.

She writes a lot about the paradoxes of life; the fact that the number of people alive today is only a tiny percentage of the number of people who have ever lived, yet we act as though we're the only generation that matters. One death is tragic, overwhelming, incomprehensible, but what do we do with thousands, millions of deaths at one stroke? At one point she quotes a headline from the Hartford Courant: HEAD-SPINNING NUMBERS CAUSE MIND TO GO SLACK, and throughout the book she scatters just this sort of head-spinning number, but insists that we must not let our minds go slack.

The experience of reading the book is a little like having a long conversation with a friend about nothing in particular, or about everything. It's filled with pauses. Sometimes she'll go on about a subject for pages, and tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. And then sometimes she starts to tell you something, interrupts herself, and maybe comes back to it again much later. It's beautifully written, and it's eye-opening to see the world the way she looks at it. Here's a passage she uses to describe the labor and delivery floor of a hospital:

There might well be a rough angel guarding this ward, or a dragon, or an upwelling current that dashes boats on rocks. There might well be an old stone cairn in the hall by the elevators, or a well, or a ruined shrine wall where people still hear bells. Should we not remove our shoes, drink potions, take baths? For this is surely the wildest deep-sea vent on earth: This is where the people come out.

It's a curious book that I'm still pondering, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Fed to jonathan's brain | September 18, 2005 | Comments (0)


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