Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard: A review

 

Ever since reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek as a young adult, I have been enamored of Annie Dillard's style of writing about Nature. Teaching a Stone to Talk first came out in 1982 and it feels like I have been intending to read it almost since that time. An e-book edition was published in 2019. At long last, I have fulfilled my intention to read and I'm very glad that I did. Better late than never.

The book comprises fourteen essays, most if not all of which have been published elsewhere but here they are in one collection. The essays are broadly about Nature but they also cover themes of time and memory, as well as touching on religion.

The first essay in the book tells of Dillard's and her husband's experience in viewing a total solar eclipse. She describes the feelings of awe and even fear that she had, in spite of the fact that she understood what was happening. Imagine the feelings of those who have experienced such an event without knowing that it will soon end and their sun will still be there in the sky. I suspect that terror is not too strong a word to apply.

The second essay in the collection is one of my favorites. It is called "An Expedition to the Pole" and it compares the experiences of polar explorers to her own experience of seeking the "pole" of religious practice; specifically, she speaks of her attempts to search for the divine in the Catholic mass. The essay goes back and forth between these two ideas as she juxtaposes the obstacles she must overcome in her search with the sometimes unfathomable decisions made by polar explorers. She finds that they actually have more in common than one might at first think.

Another favorite of mine is the essay called "Living Like Weasels" in which she describes a chance encounter with a weasel at a pond which leads her to ponder what it would be like to live a human life like a weasel.

Perhaps my overall favorites are the essays that describe her experiences in the Galapagos Islands. Those islands have always held a fascination for me partly because of their connection to Charles Darwin and to the important insights he gained there that helped him to formulate his understanding of evolution, but mainly, I think, just because they seem such a magical place with animals that have never been persecuted by humans and so have never learned fear of them. Dillard tells us of the wonder of her experiences with these animals.

The title essay of the collection, "Teaching a Stone to Talk," speaks of a neighbor of hers who actually attempts such a feat. The joke is on him because of course stones and all of Nature do talk if only we have ears to hear.

All of these essays are thought-provoking and they shine through with Dillard's care and concern for Nature. They are easily up to the standard that she set with her Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Yes, I am glad I finally got around to reading them.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars 

15 comments:

  1. This sounds like a thought provoking collection Dorothy. Happy you shared your thoughts.

    Just curious - do you read mostly eBooks? I still read almost an equal amount of print, eBooks and audio. I'm always hesitant to buy a print book sight unseen as sometimes the print is too light or too tiny for me.

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    1. I read my Kindle or the Kindle app on my iPhone/iPad pretty much exclusively. I like being able to control the font and the lighting. My eyesight is not what it used to be and this makes reading so much easier for me.

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  2. Your review is topical for me, Dorothy. From time to time I buy books from a seller of remainders, overstocks, returns from bookstores etc and for a while now there have been a couple of Annie Dillard titles in their lists. I asked my wife whether she had read any Dillard, and she has not. It may be time to get our feet wet!

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    1. I believe you will find a lot to like about her work, David.

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    2. I will get this from the library.

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  3. Glad you got to it! The Galapagos is surely a magical place and I wonder if I will ever get there to see all the magnificent creatures. I do like nature writing so thanks for this review.

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    1. If you are interested in the Galapagos, this one might be for you. She has multiple essays in the collection that deal with her trips and experiences there.

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  4. This is definitely a book I'd like to read.

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    1. You would find it quite interesting I feel sure.

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  5. I tried Pilgrim At Tinker Creek many years ago and think I just was not in the mood. Time to try again, especially after reading Braiding Sweet Grass. Alexander Chee had Annie Dillard for a teacher and has high praise for her.

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    1. I've been in something of a Nature-writing reading mood lately so this one hit me just right.

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  6. I just checked out the book from the library, Dorothy. Thanks for giving me a nudge!

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  7. Sounds like a lovely read. I enjoy books about nature.

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