We need Annie Dillard. She thinks thoughts and makes connections that you won't find in any other writer. Her new book, on the 25th anniversary of her classic Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, is a small, modest-looking volume entitled For the Time Being. As the Author's Note expresses it, Its form is unusual, its scenes are remote, its focus wide, and its tone austere. It is all of these things, but far more warm and engaging than her description sounds.
As always, Dillard is concerned with the creativity of nature and the silence of God and, here especially, with the suffering of animate creatures. But she makes of these topics a lively meditation on the mystery of being a thoughtful animal in a thoughtless world. She has created not merely a collection of essays but a collage pieced into a unified whole from fragments of themes and scenes. The recurring themes are diverse and seem unrelated birth defects, sand, encounters with strangers, clouds. Dillard loves the quietly significant tidbit. She notes that the entire population of Earth could be stacked in England's Lake Windermere. She surveys the horrific statistics of our century.
Each scene is a polished fragment that contributes to the slowly growing mosaic. The disparate pieces are surprising and compelling imagining what the Talmudic blessing would be for encountering a decapitated snake, an encounter in an Israel airport with a sexagenarian skycap who imitates Elvis, thousands of people searching a Massachusetts woodland for a missing child.
Slowly the reader of For the Time Being realizes that these scenes are adding up to not only a work of art but a vision of the human condition. This is a small book but not a small accomplishment. To say that it is as good as anything Annie Dillard has written is to say how fine it is. She cherishes the mystery of the evanescent which, come to think of it, includes the author and her grateful readers.
Michael Sims is the author of Darwin's Orchestra (Henry Holt).