For the Time Being

By Annie Dillard

published by Alfred A. Knopf

192 pages, 1999

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The Things That Annie Dillard Knows

Reviewed by Jonathan Shipley



There is no doubt that Annie Dillard knows how to write. Her last book was a book of poems. The book before that was a historical novel. The book before that was a non-fiction work. The book before that was a memoir. She returns to non-fiction with For the Time Being, 25 years after her Pulitzer Prize winning work Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Her latest looks at a variety of subjects, all focusing and connecting on one main point: Is there a God? Why do bad things happen in this word if we have a loving creator? Certainly this subject has been written about before, but not with Dillard's sense of truth and wonder.

In disjointed accounts, she discusses the natural history of sand, a catalogue of clouds, newborns at an obstetrical ward, a family of Mongol horsemen. She follows Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin digging in the deserts of China. She tells the story of Hasidics in Eastern Europe. Dillard, through these interesting accounts, poses questions about God, natural evil, and individual existence.

There is also no doubt that Annie Dillard is intelligent. She writes with obsession towards facts and ideas. When she's interested in something, she'll study it ferociously and give the reader the juiciest bits of that study. Unfortunately, her fascination with so many subjects makes her hard to follow. We want to have her lead us, but sometimes her words and phraseology make it difficult. It's as if she opened an encyclopedia, found something interesting, and wrote it down for us to read. She then finds another book, finds something else that's interesting, and writes that down the paragraph below her first. It's scattered, and by doing that, she distances her subject matter from the reader.

Yet the facts, scenes and observations she makes keep the book very interesting. From her description of the terra cotta soldiers unearthed in China to her view on birth defects, she keeps the reader involved in her studious world.

Annie Dillard is a fine writer. For the Time Being, might not be her best work to date, but it is thought-provoking even if it does at times seem somewhat disconnected. It's a good book to read and reread passages -- for the time being -- until her next book. | April 1999


Jonathan Shipley is a graduate of Washington State University and the editor of the literary magazine Odin's Eye. Shipley works for The Seattle Times and anticipates the day when he'll write his own novel for others to review.