In this audacious little book Annie Dillard ponders God, the holiness of newborns, and any individual’s insignificance in geologic time. Her prose is astringent, with wry appreciation for the brilliant and for the genuine among us; with a barely controlled horror at our dillard-for-the-timeanimal fates and our capacity for indifference and evil. She unfolds this meditation in discrete chunks; each of the book’s seven chapters is divided into segments.
Her prose is distilled, the reside of rigor. In the holy land she spies birds mate in the air and snails, for hours, in wet litter. A Palestinian boy pees his name in the sand behind a camel. She writes, “Under the camel a runnel moved over the dust like an adder.” In China she watches in the distance a man pulling a plow he’s harnessed to his body: “His feet trod his figure’s blue shadow, and the plow cut a long blue shadow in the field. He turned back as if to check the furrow, or as if he heard a call.”
Grounding her juxtapositions in the jaw-droppers we’re normally immune to—over eight million gene combinations occur in the creation of each of us; it takes a river one million years to move a grain of sand one hundred miles; there are nine galaxies for each person alive on earth, and each galaxy contains one hundred billion suns—in stories and in our own cast-off insights from age twelve onward, Dillard earns her flights and even her despair. Reared a Pittsburgh Scotch-Irish Presbyterian girl, she converted to Catholicism, taking refuge in the yeasty anonymity of the corporeal mass, then absorbed the Jewish mysticism explored here and finally called herself a “Hasidic Christian.”
In this book she wonders: just what kind of God are we dealing with, anyway?