Stephen Gallup's Reviews > Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters

Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard
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Mar 16, 2009

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Read in March, 2009

I remember the last time I read Annie Dillard. It was Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which was making a sensation at the time (1974). Her prose was strong, I thought, and her observations trenchant. But her tendency to go overboard in making a point felt like someone trying too hard. The only passage to stick in my mind from that long-ago reading concerned her amazement at the unthinkable speeds with which the Earth is simultaneously rotating on its axis, orbiting the Sun, and moving with the rest of the galaxy through space. Dillard claimed to be lying flat on the ground and holding on for dear life, which just struck me as silly.

Thirty-plus years later, I’ve given her another shot with Teaching a Stone to Talk, and must acknowledge that this volume contains almost the same comment about planetary motion. But of course there’s a lot more as well, so much in fact that focusing on this one tic of hers seems unfair.

The opening piece, in which she describes a total eclipse, is so well drawn I feel as if I had been there. Whatever else may have been written on the subject, this surely stands as the benchmark.

The next piece juxtaposes exceedingly banal scenes at small churches, where mediocrity seems to reign, with the record of various mostly failed polar expeditions. It’s hard to imagine anyone else coming up with the connection she sees, but a compelling meditation results. In both cases, people are setting out ill-prepared for a journey toward something that is almost impossible to attain. Any hope of success depends on being able to give up things by which one defines oneself. Thus, members of a disastrous trek into Antarctica had no business thinking they could reach the Pole while dining from sterling silver tableware, and likewise congregants looking for a closer walk with God cannot afford to feel superior toward amateur musicians and bumbling clergy. The following passage is precisely what I mean about the conclusions she reaches:

I do not find Christians ... sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday ...

Well, my focus may well be unfair, and it may be driven by the same defect she’s talking about, but I find her hyperbole a distraction from what is otherwise keen insight and tireless mental exploration.

On the other hand, I envy her the kind of life she has apparently led in the process.

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