Learning to See – Annie Dillard

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Back in 1994 I was living as a student in Jerusalem.  A roommate of mine had this book called “The Living.”  He was just finishing when I first saw him reading it.  I asked him if it was any good.  In a non sequitur kind of way, he said, “Look at this picture on the cover.”  It was an old plate picture of a family of loggers in the American northwest, circa 1900 or so.  I couldn’t stop studying that image with fascination.  It seemed to capture an era we’ll only imagine– men and children with axes and saws beside a clapboad shack beside fallen redwoods with trunks six feet thick.

dillard-the-living-1ts-ed.jpgI judged the book by its cover.  And while Annie Dillard didn’t take the picture, write about the picture or probably even select the picture, that photo of a world that seemed to be teeming with a secret knowledge of how hard life is brought me into Dillard’s world, which carries that same secret, along with a secret knowledge of how glorious life is at the same time.

I began to read.  Grisham, she ain’t.  She takes her time, but you suspect she’s taking you someplace– that every word is necessary.

I remember we took a week long trip to Cairo, Egypt that semester.  Our bus was to be part of a caravan escorted across the desolate Sinai Penisula by the military, without which we were more or less certain to fall prey to sand pirates, they told us.  It will be slow going, they told us.  Bring a book, they told us.  You know what I brought.

When I came back to the states, I somehow found an address and sent Annie Dillard a postcard, telling her about how much I loved this novel and her other books I had read since.  About a month later, I got a hand written postcard in the mail from her, thanking me for reading her book.  There she wrote, “I can’t imagine reading that book on a bus on your way to Cairo!”

My hope in this limited post is to introduce you to Annie Dillard if you haven’t come across her work yet, and I suppose the postcard story is a helpful place to start for this reason: I picked up “The Living” because I wanted to image the world it described.  In her postcard to me, she wanted to imagine the world I described.

Dillard wants to see the world as it is, and knows this takes work.  We have to learn to see if we are to see rightly.

I think the power of her writing is that she describes a world where glory and suffering exist side by side.  Where faith and doubt are not so incompatible as a simple mind might guess.  Where love and death somehow give shape to each other.

I’m recommending “Teaching A Stone To Talk” as the best place to begin with Annie, though I imagine other fans would have other recommendations.  After all, we’re talking about a writer who won the Pulitzer Prize with her first book, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” which has one of the most powerful chapters (ch. 2) I’ve ever read in my life by any mere mortal.

I recommend “Teaching A Stone To Talk” because it is a collection of stand alone essays which give you a feel for what she is all about.  In particular, it includes an essay called “An Expedition to the Pole” which changed and shaped my thinking on a lot of things concerning how we come to God in worship.

(Incidentally, in my letter I told her this was my favorite piece of hers, and she said it was hers too.)

So what does Annie Dillard write about, you might ask?  Philip Yancey did an interview with her which you can find in his out of print “Open Windows.”  He opens his essay with these words, and any Annie Dillard reader will probably just nod in agreement without adding much, though frustrated by that fact, since there’s so much more they know they should say, were the words available.  Yancey writes:

“Every so often a writer comes along who simply creates a new creative category.  In my opinion, Annie Dillard did just that with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, for which she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

“If you ask what the book is about, a loyal Dillard fan will stare at you vacantly.  About?  Well, a woman takes walks in the woods and sees tadpoles and water striders and things, and relates unusual facts about trees and creeks.  Not much of a plot, really.  Yet behind her observations lies a natural theology that has not been attempted with such ambition since perhaps Joseph Butler.

“Annie Dillard is a Christian who lives in a post-Voltaire, post-Darwin age of naturalistic skepticism and yet somehow avoids the blinders of that age.  She knows that nature contains, in Rudolf Otto’s phrase, Mysterium tremendum.  Even in a broken and twisted world she sees enough to leave her breathless.”  -Philip Yancey, Open Windows, Crossway Books, 1982

The irony of my coming to know Dillard’s writing is that I read because I saw something I wanted to understand, and her writing is all about wanting to understand what she sees.  If you read her, you’ll discover you are learning to see.  There will be moments where you’ll stop, drop the book into your lap, stare up at the ceiling or sky to think about what she just said.  And you’ll wonder, How great is our God?  You’ll wonder what you’ve been missing that’s been right in front of you.  You’ll wonder.

Here’s a short overview of some of my favorites Annie Dillard books:

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek— see Yancey above for as good of a description of this profound work as you’ll find.

Teaching A Stone To Talk— my recommended starting place.  Along with “An Expedition to the Pole,” this also contains the wonderful “Total Eclipse” which has the most stunning final pargraph you’ll read– but only once you’ve read everything leading up to it.

The Writing Life— Annie talking about her craft and her process in her own distinct voice.  Powerful and inspiring to writers and non-writers alike.

An American Childhood— A memior of her growing up in the Pittsburgh area.  Winsome, fun, deep and memorable.

The Living— She creates one of the more insidious literary villans I can remember, Beal Obenchain, who terrorizes one man like this: “You simply tell a  man, any man, that you are going to kill him.  Then- assuming he believes you enough to watch his every step but not quite enough to run away or kill you first- then you take pains not to kill him, and instead watch what he does, stuck alive on your bayonet and flailing… If you make a man believe that you will arrange for his dying at any moment, then you can, in effect, possess his life… You would pipe, and he would dance.”

Holy the Firm— After winning the Pulitzer, Dillard could pretty much write her own ticket concerning her follow-up.  She set out to write about three days in her home town.  On day two, there was a tragic accident where a girl was horribly burned, losing her face, and what was meant to be a three day assignment turned into a profoundly haunting short work on pain, suffering and the glory of God.

Dillard writes about something so simple that a lesser writer would look silly trying it.  She writes about seeing what there is to see.  And in the process, she trains our gaze on the details we’re missing– both the grotesque and the fantastic.  But rarely does she assume the posture of the teacher.  Mostly, you’re on the walk through the woods together.  But you’re in good company because she really, really wants to see what’s there.

So I believe Annie did try to imagine me reading “The Living” on a bus riding across the Sinai Pinnesula with our military escort because I believe she would have bet there was something worth seeing there.

Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church and the author of Struck: One Christian's Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017), Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative (Rabbit Room Press, 2011) and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ (Crossway, 2015). He is a graduate of Taylor University (1991) and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv – 2000, ThM – 2003). Follow Russ on Facebook / Twitter / Instagram.


14 Comments

  1. Ben

    You’ve me intrigued me, Russ. I’m sure my mother (and sisters) would eat this up (as will I).
    Thanks so much for the introduction!

  2. Chris Slaten

    “…you’ll discover you are learning to see. There will be moments where you’ll stop, drop the book into your lap, stare up at the ceiling or sky to think about what she just said. And you’ll wonder, How great is our God? You’ll wonder what you’ve been missing that’s been right in front of you. You’ll wonder.”

    I second that. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and the Writing Life have both had a profound impact on how I see and they are both books that I can pick up and read over and over again. Holy the Firm is also really fascinating but it has been a while since I read it. When I hear the Paul Simon line “You want to be a writer, you don’t know how are when, find a quiet place, use a humble pen.” I always think of her. She is a true humble servant to language. She taught me pretty early on in life that essays and non-fiction have the potential to be more exciting than the plot driven fictions I grew up on. There is a delicious essay of hers that I think is called the Stunt Pilot. That is a good one to study if you want to know how rich language can be. Thank you for bringing her up Russ. Which should I read next: Teaching a Stone to Talk or The Living?

  3. Russ Ramsey

    @russramsey

    Chris, which to read next? Really, you could probably take on both at the same time, since they are so differently paced works. But if you have to choose one, ask yourself this. Are you looking for something you can pick up and put down without having to maintain a story arc? If so, go with “Stone.” It’s a collection of stand alone essays. If you want to spend a sustained block of time immersed in turn of the last century Puget Sound, go with “The Living.” When all is said and done, however, you should read both.

    Love that Paul Simon lyric.

  4. crystal davy

    I’m so glad that you wrote about Dillard. She has been one of my favorite authors for nearly 10 years! There is this profound scene in “The Living” where one of the characters, understanding more deeply the frailty of human life, has the urge to lash herself to a tree – a symbol of strength and stubbornness and endurance throughout the novel.
    love it.
    love it.

  5. Chris Slaten

    Is the Stunt Pilot (I think that’s the name) one of the chapters of Teaching a Stone to Talk? For some reason I was thinking it was part of a collection. I think that that will have to be the next one I pick up because all of the energy I would normally reserve for focusing on reading novels is now being poured into selecting texts for my classes;I am going to go ahead and assume that The Living is above a seventh grader’s reading level.

  6. Curt McLey

    @curtmcley

    Somehow, I’ve never read any Annie Dillard. On the strength of your words, Russ, I ordered “The Living.” I need to finish the John Irving book I borrowed from the library first. By then, Annie’s book should be here. Thanks for the recommendation.

  7. Leslie

    I love Annie Dillard’s work, also, but I must confess to leaving The Living unfinished. It was too haunting, too unsettling for me. I couldn’t stay in the intensity of it long enough, though I agree the writing is absolutely wonderful. Too wonderful, in a way, for me right now. There was no way for me to mute or ignore any of the images, and some of them are horrific. For good reason, I get that. I loved the last book, The Mayfairs. To me one of the most compelling images in that one is the description of a mother’s desire to sit down to a lunch with her son at all of his different ages – all of her “Petes” and “Peteys” – together at once. As a mom, I think of that strange perspective we have on our kids (or on anyone we love) that we can never contain, a lot. Somehow, Dillard contains such feelings in words. She’s brilliant.

  8. Tony Heringer

    Thanks for the posts Dillard fans. So many books..so little time. Well, I’ll have to put her in my mental reading que. Coming to the Rabbit Room keeps that sucker full.

  9. Corey

    I love Annie Dillard. Thanks for this review. I’m a senior in college and currently trying to put together an honors thesis on Dillard’s final piece, “The Maytrees”–a daunting task. She is just incredible.

  10. Corey

    Also, I recommend her essay “Living Like Weasels.” It is a great representation of the style of her writing, the strength of her imagery, and the spirit with which she desires to live life. Brilliant.

  11. Jamie Stowell

    Yes, I second and third and fourth all these comments. Dillard has been my standard for good writing. Unfortunately it’s really hard for any author to come close to her style, flare and uncanny ability to make you feel like you’re the walking into the living room observing Lou and Toby Maytree fix their eyes on each other again after years apart or your the one playing with Julie the day before the plane crash.

    Holy the Firm is a book I read monthly! Every time i pick it up I discover something new…something sacred. Holy The firm has influenced me beyond words in the hard times. I wrote an online article about Holy the firm here:
    http://www.thebrewmag.com/?p=515
    If you have time, enjoy!

  12. Antoinette

    The piece about the stunt pilot is from chapter 7 in “The Writing life”. Beautiful, beautiful writing!

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