For years, I have heard my dear friends T&P raving about Annie Dillard. It’s not that I ignored this recommendation entirely, but there are so many books to read and you don’t find displays of Annie Dillard’s work in every bookstore.
Finally, I found her latest book, “The Maytrees,” in Duthie Books. I flicked through a few pages and immediately passionately bonded with, and HAD TO HAVE, the book. I bought it, lightly discarding my resolve not to buy any books this month— as one yields to any irresistible force.
T&P recommended against it ( “Read Teaching a Stone to Talk first,” they chorused), but I was not to be dissuaded.
But T&P are a determined force too, and they handed over to me their much-loved copy of “Teaching a Stone to Talk” when we met at an open air concert a few days later. So I began reading it. It’s a collection of essays, published in 1983. The copy is yellowed and the binding glue flakes off in fragments as I read, leaving tell-tale bits on my clothing.
The pristine new book still sits on the shelf while I read the old one.
And I am transfixed, unable to put it down. Dillard’s use of language is so fresh and so powerful that I almost can’t say, as one says of some writing, that I am enjoying it. Rather, I am taken up and shaken by it and set down changed.
Dillard expresses a related sort of transcendent experience in her essay Total Eclipse. She describes how she and her husband drive to a mountain in central Washington State to watch a total eclipse of the sun. Her description of the hotel (the room with the clown face print on the wall; the six old men in shirtsleeves in the lobby) is alone enough to justify the piece. But reading about her thoughts as she experiences the eclipse … well, eclipses the previous pages. The moment when the eclipse happens changes the appearance of the world and seems to change everything:
The sun was going and the world was wrong. The grasses were wrong; they were platinum. Their every detail of stem, head and blade shone lightless and artificially distinct as an art photographer’s platinum print. … The hues were metallic; their finish was matte. The hillside was a nineteenth century tinted photograph from which the tints had faded …
The world which lay under darkness and stillness following the closing of the lid was not the world we know. The event was over. Its devastation lay round about us. The clamoring mind and heart stilled, almost indifferent, certainly disembodied, frail, and exhausted. The hills were hushed, obliterated. Up in the sky, like a crater from some distant cataclysm, was a hollow ring.
I have a friend who, a couple of decades ago, used to describe certain books as having changed his life. I knew, and still know, what he meant.