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Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters

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"A collection of meditations like polished stones — painstakingly worded, tough-minded, yet partial to mystery, and peerless when it comes to injecting larger resonances into the natural world." —  Kirkus Reviews Here, in this compelling assembly of writings, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard explores the world of natural facts and human meanings. Veering away from the long, meditative studies of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek or Holy the Firm , Annie Dillard explores and celebrates moments of spirituality, dipping into descriptions of encounters with flora and fauna, stars, and more, from Ecuador to Miami. There is no writer quite like Dillard when it comes to the mysteries and wonder of the natural world.

175 pages, Paperback

First published October 13, 1982

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About the author

Annie Dillard

85 books2,158 followers
Annie Dillard (born April 30, 1945) is an American author, best known for her narrative prose in both fiction and non-fiction. She has published works of poetry, essays, prose, and literary criticism, as well as two novels and one memoir. Her 1974 work Pilgrim at Tinker Creek won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. Dillard taught for 21 years in the English department of Wesleyan University, in Middletown, Connecticut.

(from Wikipedia)

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5 stars
2,539 (42%)
4 stars
2,170 (36%)
3 stars
982 (16%)
2 stars
236 (3%)
1 star
71 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 585 reviews
Profile Image for Thomas Watson.
Author 19 books21 followers
May 13, 2013
Reading Dillard is like watching a figure skater. You don't really understand or appreciate what you've just experienced until you try to walk across an icy sidewalk.
Profile Image for Shannonpresler.
18 reviews45 followers
April 10, 2010
Every time I read Annie Dillard I become more responsible. In general. Her words are purposeful, she addresses sorrow, beauty and terror with nouns and adjectives that, if you aren't careful, look like every other noun and adjective you have ever read. But this isn't so. There is not a wasted syllable. Read about the Deer at Provenance, a story about a young fawn tied to a tree, resigning to the despair of its own death, and the people that circle around, quietly, and watch. And then read how she balances words like 'slender' with 'violence'. Ah! And then Expedition to the Pole! Never has absurdity and wisdom come together so well in American essay than here. The images and thoughts on church, human folly, polar bears and the unknown spin like a fever dream and burn like postmodern prophecy. Woo!
Profile Image for Lauren .
1,713 reviews2,307 followers
July 21, 2016
Wholly unexpected and completely amazing. I see the reviews of my fellow Goodreaders and I can echo them, Dillard is an artist and her words both perplexed and thrilled me (the polar expedition histories interspersed with detailed observations about the eclectic praise band at her church - finally meshing together with a trippy baby christening on an arctic ice flow??) WOW.

She made me laugh out loud.

It is madness to wear a ladies straw hat and velvet hats to church - we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares and lash us to our pews for the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

She made me wanderlust-y (admittingly, it doesn't take much...)

We are here on the planet only once and might as well get a feel for the place. We might as well get a feel for the fringes and hollows in which life is lived.

And she encouraged me to read everything she has written. Thank goodness she has a large canon. This woman is amazing. More Dillard!

Also, I loved this opinion piece from The Guardian that I stumbled on when reading more about her work by Geoff Dyer: Teaching A Stone to Talk made me realise I am drawn to wild authors.
Profile Image for Jeremy Forstadt.
14 reviews3 followers
June 14, 2012
Annie Dillard is one of the most satisfying essayists I know. Although I am not, generally, a reader of nature studies, Dillard's essays seem just perfect to me. If I had a single criticism, it would be that she generally ties in a theme or moral to her story to the extent that it would almost seems forced , but the language is so beautifully descriptive and the resolutions so elegant, that I am willing to forgive her for it.

In "Total Eclipse" she manages to describe the experience of witnessing a total solar eclipse in ways that are otherworldly and profoundly beautiful (and even slightly terrifying). Nothing has made me want to experience a solar eclipse myself more than Dillard's essay. In the title essay, she begins by describing "...a man in his thirties who lives alone with a stone he is trying to teach to talk." From this, the essay expands eventually into a commentary on cosmology and theology and the palos santos trees on the Galapagos Islands, and yet it all seems to be a natural evolution. This is the way with all of her essays.

Dillard's studies almost feel like free association, though like a perfect jazz solo, what seemed random and disconnected finds its way back home again as naturally as if it were scored.
Profile Image for Tricia.
170 reviews11 followers
January 17, 2009
This is a book of essays: some reflective, mostly descriptive. Sometimes I was reading and thinking, "What the hell is she talking about?" But, it's worth it to keep reading because there are phrases and paragraphs that are just golden:

From "Total Eclipse": "The mind—the culture—has two little tools, grammar and lexicon: a decorated sand bucket and a matching shovel."

From "An Expedition to the Pole": "It all seems a pit at first, for I have overcome a fiercely anti-Catholic upbringing in order to attend Mass simply and solely to escape Protestant guitars. Why am I here? Who gave these nice Catholics guitars? Why are they not mumbling in Latin and performing superstitious rituals?"

From "Living Like Weasels": "Our eyes locked, and someone threw away the key....It felled the forest, moved the fields, and drained the pond; the world dismantled and tumbled into that black hole of eyes."

And many more...
Profile Image for Dan.
1,105 reviews52 followers
November 8, 2020
Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard

Here are my favorite stories in this collection of fourteen nature essays

Total Eclipse - Annie and her husband travel to Eastern Washington to see the solar eclipse.

In the Jungle - a perfectly written article of her observations while visiting a remote jungle in Ecuador.

On a Hill Far Away - a touching story about a precocious boy at the farm next door.

Sojourner - a metaphoric article on mangrove forests and floating islands. I’ve always had a fascination with mangrove forests after a boat trip I took in the Everglades.

So in summary, no surprises here. Dillard is one of the premier writers in the nature genre. I really like her literary style and some of her stories are flawless. She is so fluent at writing in the first person.

4.5 stars. 1/2 point deduction as the best ones are on the short side.
310 reviews3 followers
December 19, 2020
There is some beautiful prose and imagery within each essay. And some of the connections between different things that Dillard makes are interesting and give insight into her thinking. But, there are also essays in the book where even by the end of the essay I have a hard time understanding the link between the two things.

While I can appreciate the jumping back and forth between things can give a sense of how our thought process can actually be at times, I did often find it hard to follow. That being said, some of the essays, especially the shorter ones, were not like this.

Looking at individual sentences or paragraphs, I love some of Dillard's writing, but looking at whole essays, I have mixed feelings about whether I want to read more of her work or not.

I give this book 2.5 stars on a first reading.
Profile Image for Geoff Wyss.
Author 5 books21 followers
July 27, 2015
This one was recommended by readers I trust, but I simply couldn't like it no matter how much I tried. There are very nice bits here and there, but those bits are smothered by the essays' constant habit of insisting on themselves, sometimes explicitly but more often through precious repetitions; heavy, obvious images and symbols; and tortured syntax that says, 'Here comes something meaningful.' Lots of self-indulgence, self-consciousness, coyness, "voice"--all filling in the voids of thought. Maybe the most damning thing to be said--and there are instances of this on almost every page--is that many phrases, sometimes entire sentences, are simply unintelligible. If you're reading quickly, they make an approximate kind of sense, but a closer look reveals nonsense.
Profile Image for Christine Norvell.
Author 1 book43 followers
May 30, 2021
I knew from Holy the Firm that Dillard's writings were full of wonderings, but the range of her wonderings is like riding a roller coaster! One moment she is wry and funny, the next she is cosmic and religious (or not)—"Why do we people in churches seem like cheerful brainless tourists on a packaged tour of the Absolute?" She writes that we should be wearing crash helmets and life preservers! I confess that I didn't understand everything I read, but I will always enjoy her nature and geographical narratives.
Profile Image for Chris.
727 reviews17 followers
January 25, 2010
Not my favorite, though there are wonderful moments here. She seems in "An Expedition to the Pole" to get wrong what she gets so right in For the Time Being. In the latter, she lays her examinations--internal and external--side-by-side and leaves us to connect. They resonate against one another and flare out into unexpected meanings. Here, she smashes her examinations of the lives of arctic explorers together with her impressions of a largely mundane Catholic service in a surreal mish-mash that clumsily does the work she will later allow her readers to do themselves.

Still and all, she stuns with her sentences ("Nature's silence is its one remark, and every flake of world is a chip off that old mute and immutable block" for example) and provides the kind of metaphors that clatter around in the brain for days or months or years--the dessicated dead weasel's skull still clamped on the neck of an eagle for the tenacious life, the hide-draped cow skeleton trapped hip-deep in a sinkhole for the side-tracked life.

And while I like this far less that some of her other work, Dillard is a writer that I will be coming back to again and again because she continues to demand answers of the world, despite its recalcitrance. As she says, "The sea pronounces something, over and over, in a hoarse whisper; I cannot quite make it out;" her life's work seems to be a matter of refusing to accept the sea's obtuseness.
Profile Image for Ashley Will.
306 reviews7 followers
December 8, 2020
A couple of my favorite lines filled with beautiful metaphorical imagery are "And if you dig your fists into the earth and crumble geography, you strike geology."
And, "The continents themselves are beautiful pea-green boats." But I can't recommend a book of essays on imagery alone, separate from its substance.
Sojourner is my favorite essay of the book. OK, it's the only essay I truly like. I didn't know anything about mangroves previously and wow I was in awe learning how resilient they are and the ability to excude salt from the ocean and to make their own soil to stay nourished, wow. And I liked how then our planet was compared to a mangrove wandering aimlessly and accumulating culture. Regarding mangroves, my favorite line in this essay is , "What it is most likely to do is drift anywhere in the alien ocean, feeding on death and growing, netting a makeshift soil as it goes, shrimp in its toes and terns in its hair." I thought that line was beautiful and that is like us and the earth because we find our way in a makeshift fashion to survive and be resilient somehow. Like a sojourner, always on the move somehow. Mangroves and human lives may be pretty and or ugly but we find a way to keep on going, beautifully. I would rate the book higher if I didn't only truly like one essay out of about 14. The more often than not disjointedness and philosophical musings with seemingly randomness did not jive with me, personally.
Profile Image for Katherine.
52 reviews3 followers
September 15, 2020
I honestly don’t know if I can tell you anything that happened or what anything means. The reviews for these essays are profoundly good and I just don’t get it. Really struggling between I’m not smart enough to understand what she’s saying and her writing is just absurd imagery and scenes that are impossible to follow. I imagine reading this in a class would be a different experience but I didn’t. I even started the whole thing over 50 pages in to try to get a better grasp on what was happening. I just think some of the other nature writing I’ve read this year (braiding sweetgrass, trace) conveyed a more intimate connection to nature without being so unnecessarily metaphorical.

As a side note I thought this was non fiction until all of a sudden the narrator was standing on an iceberg that split beneath her feet and as she tried to jump to one side, she fell off, and then got pulled up by a Chinese man as she watched a group of clowns tumble and make a human pyramid on the ice and that’s the type of story that I just don’t follow
Profile Image for David.
Author 26 books8 followers
March 29, 2013
Simply one of the best essay collections I can ever remember reading. Annie is warm and funny, but also thoughtful and quirky, and so much of the time you're never entirely sure where the essay is going to arrive. This uncertain quality is a nice feature of any essay, to my mind; I love essays that still keep Montaigne's sense of the word "essai" as "an attempt." That said, each of these pieces, long and short, is impeccably crafted, and loaded with memorable side-paths and stunning turns of phrase. Now I know why everyone loves her so much.
Profile Image for Rachel.
213 reviews4 followers
December 29, 2020
I gave this book 2 stars for one main reason: it really made me uncomfortable with the way it talked about various Indigenous / First Nations people, especially those described as "Indians" in South America - as well as the way they were presented as part of the wild and part of the landscape.

Otherwise, this was a solidly 3 star book. I have to start off by saying that I am not a giant fan of non-fiction in general, and some of these essays really bored me. On the other hand, some of these essays, and some of the lines in particular, struck a chord with me. Reading these essays was like reading poetry - it was all about appreciating it as art.

The essays which resonated with me most included "An Expedition to the Pole", which struck me with its message about the relationship between ourselves and our ambition - it was really the kind of thing I was looking to read at this time in my life. I also appreciated "Living Like Weasels", "Lenses" and "Acres and Eights", but I think this is the kind of book which has a different impact on you depending on when in your life you happen to read it. I learnt things from this book, and I have had time to sit with the messages it gave me, but mainly I just appreciated it for the way Dillard uses words like paint on a canvas. I am not the kind of person who loves paintings, but I learnt from this book to be more observant of the nature around me - it forced me to be more observant. But because I live in Australia, it resonated with me less.

Overall, I wouldn't read this book again for many years, if I ever picked it up again. I would only recommend particular essays from this book to people, as some of the depictions of Indigenous peoples bothered me significantly.
Profile Image for Kristina.
272 reviews28 followers
October 23, 2021
Unpopular opinion on this one! This was my first Dillard book. The writing was superb, elegant, and rich. However, I tried and tried to get past her underlying and pervasive snark, pessimism, and arrogance and ultimately could not. If an author truly wants to communicate a sense of awe, cohesion, bewilderment, etc. with nature, they should follow the lead of Barbara Kingsolver & her collection of essays (Small Wonders). That was brilliantly written without the flippant above-it-all dismissal found in most of these essays.
Profile Image for Miriam.
884 reviews3 followers
December 12, 2020
This book was a solid "meh" to me. There were some essays that I liked, for example "Lenses" and the one about the Galapagos islands. But there were more essays I was just incredibly bored by. It wasn't helped by her often insensitive and reductive portrayal of indigenous peoples. If I hadn't read this book for Life's Library, and had access to the wonderful discussions on my shelf, I probably wouldn't have finished it.
Profile Image for Chris Gager.
1,958 reviews77 followers
July 26, 2017
Found this one somewhere. In the past I have found AD to be a bit of a trial. The Maytrees was unreadable but her memoir wasn't too bad. The BIG problem for me is her intensely twee/poetic prose. This book is a collection of shorter pieces. I read the first one last night and it was ... OK. I'll be reading one at a time.

"Chapter " 2("An Expedition to the Pole") Meanders for many pages between the author's experiences as a spiritual seeker in a local Catholic church(definitely NOT a cathedral) and piecemeal investigations of the history of polar explorations. Then she attempts a dream-like synthesis of the two. I have no idea what she's talking about. Oh well ...

"In the Jungle" - a short piece set in Ecuador. AD must have take a nature tour there. Sounds nice. So ... it's no good hoping that the next story will NOT be over-written and NOT airy-fairy. Best to relax, accept and enjoy the good stuff.

"The Deer at Providencia" - Still in Ecuador and contemplating the unsolvable - suffering and death. Good stuff. In. Africa I watched a cow being butchered for a feast of which I partook. After its throat was cut you hear it trying to breathe. In the words of David Helfcott, "It's a mystery."

"Teaching a Stone to talk" - Back to the airy-fairy. Ms. Dillard apparently is at home with someone who is LITERALLY attempting to do the title task. Oh well ... any excuse for vague and flowery prose in the service of enigmatic observation

"On a Hill Far Away" - a tinker creek "story." Is Ms. Dillard still a Jesus-squeezer?(no - she dumped Catholicism a while ago, after having become an adult convert) A la Mary Carr/Karr(?) ... Emotionally wobbly ... married three times.

"Total Eclipse" - while AD's description of the physical manifestations of totality are piercingly acute and wondrous, she goes predictably bat-bleep nutty with all the "spiritual/emotional" stuff she attaches to the experience. She gets a bit biblical too ... ick!

"Lenses" - microscopes and telescopes.

"Life on the Rocks: The Galapagos - I liked this one. Ms. Dillard continues to veer from fairly straightforward to out-of-control and I prefer the former.

"A Field of Silence" = back to airy-fairy land with the somewhat incoherent(to me) and flaky-prosed Ms. Dillard. More of her religiosity and other related craziness. God ... angels ... One is reminded of Faulkner. That man has a LOT to answer for!

"God in the Doorway" - Poor Annie = uber-sensitive girl. Miss White was crazy - no need to apologize! Where's the good sense? Once again I'm reminded of the guy in the Alaskan bush in the school bus = "Into the Wild" another personality in extremis.

Last night's two readings were good examples of the up-and-down nature of this book for me. "Mirages" had some interesting descriptive language, but overall the verbal/spiritual fireworks were just ... too ... much. The next bit, "Sojourner," an essay about mangroves, was much better(for me).

Finished up last night with "Aces and Eights," one of the best essays in this collection. Though AD did at times lapse into her trademark arch over-intellectualism, the story was actually a bit moving at the end. Oh that writing! When it's good it's very good and when it's bad(fussy-prissy, over-sensitive, over-precious - metonymic! catenary! - over self-aware) its annoying to the opoint of resentment on my part. Keeps referring to her daughter(I assume) as "the child" - WHY? so ... to be positive I say that Annie Dillard deserves credit for trying to write in a way that's true to her vision of the world. She tries to "tell it true." Oh yeah, she is/was a smoker too - UGH! Not a good sign ...

- 3.5* rounds down to 3*
Profile Image for Bob Nichols.
889 reviews292 followers
April 24, 2014
The book is uneven. More often than not, I don’t know what is being said or why. Words and sentences are presented with little or no meaning. Stories jump around and I miss their line.

And yet, there’s always enough to keep me going. When Dillard encountered a weasel unexpectedly, she writes that “our eyes locked, and someone threw away the key.” It’s “face was fierce, small and pointed as a lizard’s; he would have made a good arrowhead,” she observes. Reflecting on its life, she says that “The weasel lives in necessity and we live in choice, hating necessity and dying at the last ignobly in its talons.” In another story, at a church where there was the custom of saying “peace be with you” to those nearby in the pew, the proper response was the same, “peace be with you.” Sitting next to two “teen-aged lugs,” Dillard said, “peace be with you,” and one of the lugs replied, “Yeah.” On a hilltop near Yakima, Washington, Dillard spots Crab Nebula, and comments that “It expands at the rate of seventy million miles a day. It is interesting to look through binoculars at something expanding seventy million miles a day. It does not budge.”

Or, Dillard taps into a nice image of mystery. Walking by a field, she remarked to her friend that “’There are angels in those fields.’ Angels!...I have rarely been so surprised at something I’ve said. Angels! What are angels? I had never thought of angels, in any way at all.” Thinking about it a bit, she writes, “My impression now of those fields is of thousands of spirits – spirits trapped, perhaps, by my refusal to call them more fully, or by the paralysis of my own spirit at that time – thousands of spirits, angels in fact, almost discernible to the eye, and whirling. If pressed I would say they were three or four feet from the ground.” That’s enough for most people to keep their distance. Dillard senses and shows what most of us do not see. And that’s a good thing.
Profile Image for Lisa.
11 reviews
December 14, 2009
Each time I tried to read this book I would notice my boyfriend laughing, what I didn't notice was that I would sit down heavily and sigh as though someone was making me do knuckle push-ups. I was loaned this book by a wealthy, bored woman that I work for and thought it would be polite of me to read the book that means so much to her. Today I decided I'm done fighting. I'm tired of hearing about "god" and self-righteous observations of nature and man conquering it. I found this book pompous, boring, and excruciating to try to read.
Profile Image for Larry Bassett.
1,413 reviews300 followers
November 28, 2022
I have definitely read this book before, but I have apparently not written about it before. It is a short book, and this time I listen to the audible version of the summary of this book is, it is a HOOT! It is like when you are having a random conversation with yourself and just, following the winding of your memory down the path that is both familiar and newly discovered. Annie Dillard hops and skips around and you never know where she is going to land. She is lucid and she is mysterious.
Profile Image for nathan.
307 reviews138 followers
April 24, 2023
This book has everything: death, clowns, the fear of Santa Claus.

It's great that I live in a city. So much so that when I miss nature, I can pick up Mary Oliver or Dillard and be one with the trees. It's incredible the direction Dillard takes from seeing a weasel, leveling with it, and then somehow I'm alone thinking about my purpose in life.

My last Dillard was years ago, 𝘗𝘪𝘭𝘨𝘳𝘪𝘮 𝘢𝘵 𝘛𝘪𝘯𝘬𝘦𝘳 𝘊𝘳𝘦𝘦𝘬. Spellbinding, haunting, mystical in a way.

Dillard is the same here. I used to think the woman took shrooms to reach the elevated thoughts she pursues, but it's actually a strong third cup of joe, which she admits in the text. Here she is jovial, witty, yet still spirited in her usual sense. A lot to enjoy here for Dillard-heads and still a very good entry point if you want to get to know Dillard and her big beautiful brain.
Profile Image for Jessie.
150 reviews
January 1, 2021
Loved this! She writes how I wish I could write. Kind of reminded me of a mix between Patti Smith and Robin Wall Kimmerer.
Definitely some convoluted storytelling and an overall melancholy tone but I found each essay striking.
Lots of themes of nature, God and creation, the purpose of humanity, etc.
Profile Image for Scott.
307 reviews6 followers
September 8, 2010
Amazing short stories, heart achingly beautiful renderings of fleeting moments within the natural world. Her stories are written both with clarity and an impressionistic aura. Treat yourself to the story Total Eclipse to see what I am unable to capably put into words.
Profile Image for Matt Trussell.
269 reviews
December 10, 2020
A solid "meh". Don't get me wrong, some of these essays were great, An Expedition to the Pole, Living Like Weasels, The Galápagos and Sojourner were some of my favorites, but it seemed like this collection was very hit or miss, for every essay that made me stop and think about a big idea, or had some lovely lines or interesting facts, there was one that just fell flat and I wasn't really sure what I was reading or what I should have been getting out of it. A few of them just seemed to...end with nothing there to wrap up the ideas or stories conveyed. The essays I enjoyed, I really enjoyed, but four 5-star essays out of 14 is just not enough to give the entire collection a high rating. Some form of the expression, "to hold onto something like a weasel" when describing grabbing onto something you love and not letting go will become part of my vernacular from now on.
22 reviews1 follower
January 13, 2021
3.5 stars?

Some of the chapters were difficult to connect with, and I'm sure I didn't fully get the meaning of all of them. On the other hand, the language was really wonderful, with some intriguing thoughts and poetic sentences.

I discovered this book through the life's library book club, and the discussion over there certainly helped me to get more out of the book.

Really glad I read this, but not sure I would immediately go for other books of the same author.
Profile Image for Paul.
2,133 reviews
March 23, 2017
In this collection of fourteen essays Dillard brings her almost forensic observation of natural world as well as a keen perception of the smallest detail to a wide variety of subjects. Starting with her thoughts on a solar eclipse that she travels to see in Yakima, we accompany her on her a journey to the Appalachian Mountains and all the way to the Galapagos Islands. With her we see the world through the eyes of a weasel and take a walk from her home. We also meet the man who inspired the title of the book, who is Teaching a stone to speak; most will think this a futile gesture, but as Dillard explains, it is his way of communing with the natural world at the pace he desires.

The silence is all there is. It is the alpha and the omega.

There is a strong spiritual dimension to her sparse but eloquent prose. It is beyond me how she manages to pack so much meaning into so few words. Her childlike fascination with the world around is evident in the book and she manages to deftly entwine this with themes of exploration and discovery and how we can use it to watch and observe the things that happen around us. I particularly liked the essay on lenses, how it is something that you have to master before you can use it to see the far away and the near. Until now I have never read any of her books before, now will be working my way through her non-fiction back catalogue.
Profile Image for Emily.
132 reviews
December 12, 2020
There was only one essay I really got into. I couldn't get into the rest of them. Sometimes the ending was food, but it was a struggle for me to get there.
I think if I was religious I would have enjoyed this more.
56 reviews
January 31, 2021
"There is a place called "the farm" where I lived once, in a time that was very lonely. Fortunately I was unconscious of my loneliness then, and felt it only deeply, bewildered, in the half-bright way that a puppy feels pain."

Annie Dillard is a very good writer. Her imagery is so descriptive and captivating. Several of the stories felt un-put-down-able even though they weren't particularly tense. I just wanted to keep living inside of them. The two I felt this the most with were "An Expedition to the Pole" and "Aces and Eights". Having just finished the latter, I'm feeling a bit morose about what to do next.
Profile Image for Caroline.
69 reviews2 followers
December 16, 2020
I respect and recognize the beauty of Dillard's writing, however it was not for me.
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