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For the Time Being Paperback – February 8, 2000

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Editorial Reviews Review

Over the last three decades, Annie Dillard has written about an uncommon number of things--predators and prose, astronomy and evolution, the miraculous survival of mangroves. Yet the sheer range of her interests can be deceptive. Whatever the subject, Dillard is always (as she wrote in Living by Fiction) practicing unlicensed metaphysics in a teacup, always asking the fundamental questions about life and death. And this epistemological interrogation continues in For the Time Being. Here Dillard alternates accounts of her own travels to China and Israel with ruminations on sand, clouds, obstetrics, and Hasidic thought. She also records the wanderings of paleontologist and spade-wielding spiritualist Teilhard de Chardin, whose itinerary (geographical and philosophical) has certain similarities to her own. But as she ties together these disparate threads with truly Emersonian eloquence, it becomes clear that God's presence--or absence--is at the heart of her book.

There are, of course, facts aplenty here: the author is among our keenest living observers of the natural world (check out her soft-core account of two snails mating in chapter 7). But all roads lead Dillard back to God, who seems to be practicing a divine variant of benign neglect:

God is no more cogitating which among us he plans to be born as bird-headed dwarfs or elephant men--or to kill by AIDS or kidney failure, heart disease, childhood leukemia, or sudden infant death syndrome--than he is pitching lightning bolts at pedestrians, triggering rock slides, or setting fires. The very least unlikely things for which God might be responsible are what insurers call "acts of God."
Natural calamity is an old fascination of the author's, going clear back to Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and Holy the Firm. Here it allows her to make her strongest argument yet on behalf of the Almighty's laissez-faire policy--while suggesting that His immanence in fact depends on our belief.

Yet even in her earnest pursuit of holiness, Dillard tends to hit the occasional speed bump. At one point she throws up her hands in exasperation and declares: "I don't know beans about God." This is hardly the stuff of an airtight theological argument, is it? But happily, Dillard possesses the same quality she ascribes to Teilhard, "a sort of anaerobic capacity to batten and thrive on paradox." So her contradictions are worth more to the reader than her consistencies. They enrich her narrative, yanking her back from the precipice of easy (or even moderately easy) belief. And Dillard's penchant for paradox ensures that For the Time Being--which aims, after all, to encompass God and all his works--always operates on a human, heartbreaking scale. --James Marcus --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Writing as if on the edge of a precipice, staring over into the abyss, Dillard offers a risk-taking, inspiring meditation on life, death, birth, God, evil, eternity, the nuclear age and the human predicament. This unconventional mosaic, portions of which were first published in different form in Raritan, Harper's, etc., interweaves several disparate topics: the travels of French paleontologist and Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin in China and Mongolia, where his team in 1928 discovered the world's first fossil evidence of pre-Neanderthal humans; the life and teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, the 18th-century Ukrainian Jewish mystic who founded modern Hasidism; a natural history of sand?an epic drama of rocks, glaciers, lichen, rivers?and of individual clouds as witnessed by painters, poets, naturalists, scientists and laypeople. Rounding out this fugue are Dillard's visits to an obstetrical ward to watch healthy newborns emerge; her survey of tragic, horrific human birth defects; random encounters with strangers; her trips to Israel, where she visited Jesus' birthplace, and to China, where, at the tomb of the first Chinese emperor, Qin?mass murderer, burner of books, Mao's idol?she inspected the terra-cotta army of life-size soldiers who guard Qin in the afterlife. Dillard's unifying theme is the congruence of thought she detects in Teilhard, Kabbalists and Gnostics: each impels us to transform, build, complete and grant divinity to the world. Her cosmic perspective can seem like posturing at times, yet it succeeds admirably in forcing us to confront our denial of death, of the world's suffering, of the interconnectedness of all people. Her razor-sharp lyricism hones this mind-expanding existential scrapbook, which is imbued with the same spiritual yearning, moral urgency and reverence for nature that has informed nearly all of her nonfiction since the 1972 Pulitzer Prize-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. 60,000 first printing.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage; Vintage Books ed edition (February 8, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375703470
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375703478
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (98 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #243,215 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Annie Dillard is the author of ten books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winner Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, as well as An American Childhood, The Living, and Mornings Like This. She is a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters and has received fellowship grants from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Born in 1945 in Pittsburgh, Dillard attended Hollins College in Virginia. After living for five years in the Pacific Northwest, she returned to the East Coast, where she lives with her family.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

62 of 67 people found the following review helpful By Meredith K. Askey on July 20, 2006
Format: Paperback
This is my first Dillard book, after a failed attempt to read "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" at age 16. I am now 23; I have a very different worldview than I did at 16, and although I am still relatively young and inexperienced, and make no claims to be more intelligent or intellectually gifted than other reviewers, I must take issue with the two reviewers below who gave only one star. I love this book, and I believe two of my fellow reviewers have missed some important points. One Robert Michael accuses Dillard of providing "no analysis" of her "only one very general theme"; I say, he was expecting Dillard to do all the work for him, but her goal was to relate her musings and leave the detailed analysis to the reader. I find this a very effective and gratifying method: Dillard trusts her readers to come to their own conclusions, which may or may not match her conclusions from the thought trails she is following. Her observations are profound, unique, beautiful, and moving, and even more so when I let them take my mind on its own thoughtful journey.
Another reviewer, Hortensia "massageprop," accuses Dillard of "[assuming] that Jews and Christians have all the answers to fundamental questions about existence," but I am POSITIVE that Dillard's point is exactly the opposite: she finds little meaning in either, or in any organized religion, and is wondering how people have fooled themselves into finding so much meaning in these belief systems for so long, shutting themselves off from other modes of thought.
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29 of 29 people found the following review helpful By Wendy C. Turgeon on October 20, 1999
Format: Hardcover
I teach philosophy but respect the power of poetry and the story to provoke philosophical wonderment. Dillard's seemingly disconnected vignettes ask us to weave together our own experiences of individuality and generality and contemplate the paradox of evil and God. I agree with many other reviewers that this takes time to read and, most importantly, to reflect upon. It is a hybrid of many literary styles and as such, annoys or confuses some readers. We are a culture steeped in action and accumulation, not in reflection, meditation. Dillard offers us a vehicle by which to plummet our own beliefs, dogmas and souls.
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51 of 56 people found the following review helpful By Cathy on October 16, 2001
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is the most profoundly spiritual book I've ever read. I don't know if that's what she intended, but that was the affect it had on me. I was just stunned with the breadth and the depth of it. I'm not a previous fan of Dillard's work -- this is the first book of hers I've ever read, and I didn't come to it with any preconceptions. She writes of the hard things along with the beautiful, writes as a mystic-observer in love with ALL that is. A faith as true and deep as Job's (though not a Christian one), and an eye much keener. One on a short list of life-changing books for me.
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31 of 35 people found the following review helpful By Peggy Vincent on October 21, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I wish I could THINK like Annie Dillard does, let alone WRITE like she does. How does she do it?
The great theological question of God's existence seems to be at the heart of everything she writes about, whether it's bugs or babies, glaciers or galaxies, politics or polecats, leaf mold or love letters. She takes such great risks with her writing, letting the subject matter soar on the finest of threads way out into space, far from the central point at which she began - but then, just when you think she's truly gone off course and over into some abyss from which she'll never return, she finds her way home within the writing and ends up with a gorgeous piece of writing that hangs perfectly together. I ask again: how does she do this?
I know, actually: She's a whole lot brighter than most of the rest of us, and thank God she uses her vast curiosity and even more vast intelligence to share her thoughts with us as she ruminates on the eternal questions of God, Life, Death, and the Human Predicament.
Essentially a collection of loosely woven disparate essays, For the Time Being, like all of Dillard's books, is written with lyricism, erudition, intelligence, and humor. If you like her other books, don't miss this one.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 22, 1999
Format: Hardcover
The need to deepen and widen our understanding of God, and a renewed awareness that in a world yearning for healing there is no room for spectatorship, Annie Dillard takes on the big questions: Who are we people? What is the worth of an individul? How can evil exist in a world created by a benevolent God? To what end were we born? In response, Dillard takes her readers on a circuitously eclectic journey among seemingly random themes--birth, numbers, China, Israel, sand, encounters, paleontology, religion--underscoring life's tragedies, mysteries and marvels. Dillard quotes widely, but for the most from Hasidic Judaism. To this reader her heavy usage of Hasidism would have carried greater authenticity coming from Elie Wiesel or Isaac Bashevis Singer. Through Dillard's stylistic pastiche of literary hopscotch, one reads the first 150 pages patiently looking for connecting links, asking: How does she pull all this together? In the final pages we learn that she is attracted to the philosophy of "panentheism," the view that sees everything simultaneously in God and that postulates a transcendent principle from which everything is derived. In summary, "God entrusts and allots to everyone an area to redeem." Writing as one who is at home with the world of natural phenomena, Dillard astonishes with data and statistics. Footnotes would have proved helpful. One is curious about her sources.
This is a provocative read--literate, iconoclastic, and courageous in facing the big questions.
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