Monday, September 27, 2010

Rose Knows

(I read this book for the Decades 2010 Challenge, representing the 1970s.)

I received a bit of a warning from Rose City Reader when I said I was going to read this book. She said, and I quote, "I want to like Dillard, but Pilgrim had a lot of bugs in it. It's grown on me, though, since I read it."

Can't say I wasn't warned. It does indeed have a lot of bugs in it, and not in a good way. I'm as interested in the natural world as the next person, but there are some things it's just better not to know. And those particular things seem to be the things Dillard brings up again and again and again. Enough with the gruesome details, already!

I read the 25th Anniversary Edition and it contained a helpful Afterword. Dillard says she consciously gave the book a two-part structure, based upon classical theology's two theories on how to discover God. One theory looks for God by examining all the good things in the world, because God is omnipotent, omnipresent, etc., etc. and therefore when you find the good things, you find Him. The other theory considers God basically unknowable, but reasons that if you can separate out all the things that aren't God, what's left over must necessarily be God. (These both sound like the labors of Hercules to me, but apparently that doesn't bother either camp.)

So the two-part structure explains why the first part of the book is largely rainbows and butterflies (almost literally), and the second part is filled with fun stories like praying mantis females sawing the heads off their mates during mating. Now I ask you, if you took on the monumental task of making a list of God Things or Not God Things, which list would you rather work on? Dillard's work on the Not God Things list quickly obliterated the pleasure of reading the God Things list. And there you have it.

In addition to that quibble, I found Dillard's writing to be florid and overblown, without being authentically moving. She can paint a picture with words, but she couldn't make me care about it. A very helpful "About Annie Dillard" section in the back of my copy notes that her writing has not met with universal acclaim, with some critics using words like "self-absorbed [and] overwritten" and complaining that "[h]er observations are typically described in overstatement reaching toward hysteria." Put me down for hysteria, please.

I also had a little trouble accepting the fact that she was somehow making a living by tramping around in the woods every day, crouching on fallen logs for hours at a time to observe water bugs with a smouldering cigarette in hand. I confess I kept wondering if hallucinogenics were involved.

Maybe this book will grow on me with the passage of time, like it did on Rose City Reader. Maybe.


You can shake the hand of a man you meet in the woods; but the spirit seems to roll along like the mythical hoop snake with its tail in its mouth. There are no hands to shake or edges to untie. It rolls along the mountain ridges like a fireball, shooting off a spray of sparks at random, and will not be trapped, slowed, grasped, fetched, peeled, or aimed. "As for the wheels, it was cried unto them in my hearing, O wheel." This is the hoop of flame that shoots the rapids in the creek or spins across the dizzy meadows; this is the arsonist of the sunny woods: catch it if you can.

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