Nonfiction

For the Time Being by Annie Dillard

I picked this one up from the library based on Janis’ recommendation and her call for somebody to discuss it with on GoodReads. Well, Janis, knowing she’s a favorite of yours, I read it and, though I’m not entirely sure I’m actually smart enough to discuss it, here are my thoughts!

The first thing I noticed about Dillard’s writing, at least in this particular book (not having read any of her other work, I don’t know what she usually sounds like), was that her style – by which I mean the way the book was put together – reminded me a lot of David Markson’s, for lack of a better word, anecdotal novels. (On a sidenote, if you’ve never read a David Markson book, I highly suggest them – Vanishing Point, Reader’s Block, and This Is Not a Novel are the anecdotal ones, I think Wittgenstein’s Mistress is a more traditional one in terms of format, if not content…) She has four or five disparate topics that she continually circles around, including clouds, numbers, birth, and China. At first they seem to not have any connections, but slowly, it becomes clear that she is drawing faint lines between them and it’s up to the reader to discern them.

I like books like that, but they can be exhausting and it doesn’t help that Dillard lingers on topics such as death, deformities, and religion. But I made it through and, although I’m sure I didn’t get her complete message (or even necessarily the correct one), here are some thoughts this book made me think (well, really one big thought, but it’s broken into two related thoughts):

Like I said, deformities and birth defects are some of the topics to which she continually returns. So are paleontology and the evolution of our ancestors. Things that may be considered deformities now may eventually become the norm, right? Eventually, there will be a deformity that is useful and it will become the standard and people who are born without whatever it is (gills, x-ray vision, a few more arms) will be considered to have a disability. I suppose it’s a fairly obvious thought, but there you go.

And that reminded me of a trip to the Field Museum in Chicago a while ago. It must have been an exhibit on evolution and one of the cases had a diagram of the evolution of the horse, similar to this one which I found here:

Now apparently rough estimates of human existence are at, what, anywhere from 2-4 million years? If I’m off by a couple million, it won’t really matter. My point is that, if we were horses, we would still be this horse:

It’ll be around 16 million years before we’re at the next evolutionary stop. That’s a lot of evolving we’ve got left to do.

There were also a few things she said that I found interesting, for numerous reasons, which, seeing as this is my blog, I’m going to share with you. 😉

‘We are only about 300 generations from 10,000 years ago.’ (p. 119)

Doesn’t seem so far away when you think about it like that, does it? There’s another interesting thing about this one which I’ll get to in a minute.

‘It is interesting, the debris in the air. A surprising portion of it is spider legs, and bits thereof. Spider legs are flimsy, Oxford writer David Bodanis says, because they are hollow. They lack muscles; compressed air moves them. Consequently, they snap off easily and go blowing about.’ (p. 123)

!!! Here I thought I had enough to worry about with all the spiders you swallow in your sleep and now I hear about this?! (I know, it’s not true, but it still manages to freak me out.)

But here’s where it starts to get confusing. When describing a woman who has just given birth, Dillard says:

‘She looks like the cartoon Road Runner who has just had a steam roller drive over it.’ (p. 39)

It seems innocuous enough, but can anyone tell me what’s wrong with that sentence? That’s right! The Road Runner never got run over by the steam roller, it was always poor old Wile E. Coyote who got run over by things. What are we to make if this inaccuracy? Is she setting us up for something? I’m not sure because, finally, she says:

‘We are civilized generation number 500 or so, counting from 10,000 years ago when we settled down.’ (p. 187)

Wait, what? Annie, unless I’m misunderstanding (which is indeed very possible), you just told us earlier that we are 300 generations from 10,000 years ago, not 500.

So. Did she plant these little inaccuracies so that by the end of the book, we’d come out doubting what we thought we’d realised while reading her book? It seems like something David Markson would do. Much of the book seems spent questioning things – why we’re here, why certain things happen, etc., so maybe Dillard’s trying to keep us on our toes, trying to keep us from settling in too comfortably into our beliefs when there’s always something new that might come along and shake them up if we’ll only let it…

Or maybe she just didn’t watch enough Saturday morning television as a child, I don’t know. Janis? Thoughts?

My rating: B+

(I would have given it a higher rating, but I don’t like things that make me feel less smart than I think I am and I found it a little depressing at times which was okay this time because I also stumbled across a new book of essays by Anne Fadiman of Ex Libris (review to follow soon!), which I would read after this to sort of cleanse my palate before falling asleep, so it balances out…) 😉

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One thought on “Nonfiction

  1. Thank you, Anne, for reading this book and sharing your thoughts about it! It is unlike Dillard’s other books in many ways, but all of her books do twist my mind up a bit, because, I think, of the way she looks at the world. She surprises me and catches me off-guard (and I like that). I enjoyed the circular way she approached her subjects and I’m grateful to her for tackling them. Death, time, what is the Big Guy up to — at my age, these are topics that have become very interesting! I don’t think she has a particular message for the reader, but is just circling around these elemental questions. I was interested in the profiles of de Chardin, the rabbis, and the Buddhist masters and their efforts to reach an understanding of these bewildering world we are placed in. And, like all the best books, this one made me want to live more deliberately and to look at things more carefully.

    With your peerless editor’s eyes, you caught contradictions I did not see. I think (horrors!) they actually might be errors.

    I’ve never read David Markson but will investigate! I saw another reference in a review of this Dillard book to author John D’Agata and his lyric essays that somehow play with time. I usually demand a more straightforward narrative (I like a story!) but am intrigued. And only vaguely related to that — have you ever read Coming Through Slaughter? It’s a marvelous book by Michael Ondaatje. I read it many years ago, and was struck by the unusual way the author chose to tell the story…it almost read like poetry to me, and required a different level of reading on my part.

    So sorry to take so long to reply to your thoughts on this. Thank you again for reading this book with me!

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