93 of 96 people found the following review helpful
I remember a paradoxical statement about the Bible that I heard attributed to Karl Barth: "The Bible is not the word of God, but it contains the word of God." Well, TEACHING A STONE TO TALK is not Annie Dillard's finest book (that distinction belongs to either PILGRIM AT TINKERS CREEK or AN AMERICAN CHILDHOOD), but it contains her best work, i.e., some essays that are as good as anything that she has ever written. Almost inevitably, as in most collections, some of the essays aren't nearly as strong as the best, but the good ones make this slender volume essential reading for any fan of Ms. Dillard.
My personal favorite among the fourteen comprising this book is also the longest, "An Expedition to the Pole." I consider myself to be a deeply religious person, but I also find church services to be almost unbearable (much like one of my literary heroes, Samuel Johnson). In this essay, Dillard contrasts her experiences in an utterly dreadful church service with many of the attempts in the nineteenth century to mount expeditions to reach the North Pole. The attempts of those adventurers are simultaneously tragic and laughable, in that their goal was so vastly beyond their means. The implication is that the same is true in worship: we attempt to worship god, but our efforts are clumsy and fall far short of the mark. There is nobility in both, and certainly Dillard doesn't want to imply that worship is futile. But the parallels are there. It is a brilliant essay.
28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on September 9, 2004
Annie Dillard is one of the most satisfying essayists I know. Although I am not, generally, a reader of nature studies, Dillard's essays seem just perfect to me. If I had a single criticism, it would be that she generally ties in a theme or moral to her story to the extent that it would almost seems forced , but the language is so beautifully descriptive and the resolutions so elegant, that I am willing to forgive her for it.
In "Total Eclipse" she manages to describe the experience of witnessing a total solar eclipse in ways that are otherworldly and profoundly beautiful (and even slightly terrifying). Nothing has made me want to experience a solar eclipse myself more than Dillard's essay. In the title essay, she begins by describing "...a man in his thirties who lives alone with a stone he is trying to teach to talk." From this, the essay expands eventually into a commentary on cosmology and theology and the palos santos trees on the Galapagos Islands, and yet it all seems to be a natural evolution. This is the way with all of her essays.
Dillard's studies almost feel like free association, though like a perfect jazz solo, what seemed random and disconnected finds its way back home again as naturally as if it were scored.
Jeremy W. Forstadt
32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
This book truly is a well crafted and literary set of short stories; all or most of them being autobiographical. But the author does something special in this book. Her stories all center around the physical, mixed with the spiritual, mixed with the metaphysical, both alone and in concert, and finally, in the way they seem to co-exist, at least to her perception and observation.
The substance of her plot is more a substance of a progression of human feelings, than events. The events just happen, the reasons, she tells us, are personal, and mostly uncontrollable. But they ARE. They exist temporally, spiritually, physically, and metaphysically all at the same time. How each of us sees these things is a bit like Albert Einstein's General and Special Theories of Relativity. It all depends on how you come to the words of Annie Dillard, and how we interpret what she is saying. Whether you can relate to it out of your own experience, or whether you can live it vicariously through Dillard's writing matters not, what matters is the attitude and state of mind that one brings to the stories.
For readers interested in a mind expanding vision of reality, and non-reality, this book is beautifully written to take you to all these places. And it takes you through feelings, that almost every reader can relate to. It is worth every minute spent on it.
41 of 46 people found the following review helpful
The first thing I think I should say is that I don't think I fully understand this book.
The second thing I think I should say is that I like it anyway.
Way back at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard decided to open her eyes and see what she could see. Pilgrim is a vibrant and enthusiastic book, Annie reacting exuberantly to the things she sees, even the puzzling and disturbing ones.
Nowadays, she's been "seeing" awhile, and I don't think she really likes what she sees. In Teaching a Stone to Talk, there's a deep feeling of unsettledness, of discomfort. Annie sees a world that is silent, beautiful and ugly at the same time, a world that is complex and unyielding to any attempts to make it make sense without closing your eyes.
There's brilliance here I think...of an unsettling sort. Some of her revelations float right over my head. But often she connects, and beautifully. "An Expedition to the Pole" brilliantly and powerfully compares the titled subject to religion and the search for God. "Total Eclipse" and "God in the Doorway" are other favorites, along with "Living Like Weasels" - probably one of her best essays ever, and the only one in this book that actually feels like Pilgrim.
Read an excerpt. there's a link under "book info." See if you like it. I do.
If you'd like to discuss this book with me, or other books, or recommend something you think I'd like, or just chat, e-mail me at email@example.com. but be nice.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on April 18, 2004
Her Pilgrim at Tinker Creek won the Pulitzer for non-fiction in 1974, establishing her reputation for magical writing and eyes that see the world in a special way that open ours when she describes what she is seeing. In this 5th book she continues her exploration of the world and translating it into human terms and meanings. Don't dismiss Dillard's narratives as simple excursions into nature with lessons or morals tacked on. Dillard's descriptions are powerful. You not only see the total eclipse she watches from a Washington hillside; you feel its aura, shudder in the morning chill, sense the mixture of awe, wonder and even momentary fear as the crowd screams.
Annie Dillard writes with an eye for splendor and for suffering, with a sense of amazement and of loss. She witnesses events: the sun eclipses, a deer struggles at the end of a rope, a weasel meets her eye. There is a man burnt, a flight of wild swans circling, a young girl who vows never to change, a band of polar explorers who drift on ice floes. Annie Dillard is an explorer, in the world and on the page.
Teaching A Stone To Talk: Expeditions and Encounters is a collection of stunning personal narratives that stretch from eastern woods and farmlands to the Pacific northwest coast, to tropical islands and rivers.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on September 14, 1999
These essays are Annie at her best. Who else could compare and contrast going to church with going to the North Pole, and pull it off with profound thoughts, clever humor, and attention to historical and natural detail. Annie Dillard continues to be one of the world's deepest thinkers. You will enjoy this book on so many levels that it will easily become a book to read for the rest of your life.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
A couple of months ago, I happened upon the wholly enchanting For the Time Being by Annie Dillard. Following up on that, I just read this Teaching a Stone to Talk, and I will certainly be continuing to explore the work of this amazing author.
Teaching a Stone to Talk is a collection of essays that contains some true masterpieces. My personal favorite is the first, "Living Like Weasels," in which Dillard encourages us, and points for us the way, to remember how to live. Others are almost equal. "An Expedition to the Pole" cleverly and poignantly compares the journeys of arctic and antarctic explorers with the goings on in a tiny church congregation searching for God. In "God in the Doorway," Dillard expounds on an encounter with a woman and uses it to illuminate on the nature of God's love.
Teaching a Stone to Talk is a truly amazing work. Whether she is writing about nature, an eclipse, or about a conversation with a small boy, Dillard manages to mesmerize the reader with her words and humor, and she blows the reader away with her wisdom and insight.
12 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on March 10, 2002
Albert Einstein himself once said, "The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking." A scientist is not more intelligent than a layperson, but rather thinks differently. A talented scientist thinks of every aspect of life in terms of science and facts and hypotheses and theories. A talented scientific writer thinks of science in terms of people and society and relevance and literature. Annie Dillard, the author of Teaching a Stone to Talk, achieved the status of "talented scientific writer" by infusing each of her words with science, literature, and importance.
After reading only the first few paragraphs of this book, it was evident that Annie Dillard was an excellent writer, regardless of what she was writing about. After reading a few more paragraphs, I realized that this was going to be a good book for more than its literary merits. The science aspect of Teaching a Stone to Talk is written in the form of a concentration, not an overwhelming theme. This book is very effective in that it examines so many areas of long-studied and complicated science and still manages to present each one in simple terms. I am not a scientist by any means and I understood every last scientific reference and technological term. More importantly, I understood them not as pages of facts, but as human-interest stories.
Each of the book's 14 chapters was split into two consecutive sections: one concerning the science and one concerned with the people. For example, the second chapter, "An Expedition to the Pole," takes turns telling about research expeditions to Polar regions and the congregation of the author's church. Although the two topics seem completely unrelated, the author points out that both the members of the expeditions and the members of the congregation are searching blindly for something and are too often concerned with their own petty issues. This organization is well structured and seems a natural progression.
The facts of the book are not presented as theories; they are presented as observations. The previous studies of scientists are cited and discussed in detail, and they are also validated by the author's own experiences. For instance, after the author tells the history of polar expeditions, she tells the story of her own voyage to the Arctic Circle and the occurrences she observed. Dillard describes each detail of her voyage so that the reader may experience second-hand what he or she will most likely never experience first-hand.
I did not learn about science from the book Teaching a Stone to Talk. I learned about the most important, fundamental foundation of science: observation. The author observed nature and its land and creatures, but she also observed people and their habits and expectations. This book is a true reflection of the significance of science in everyday life.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on March 11, 2006
Annie Dillard's work is most certainly her best with the exception of her Thoreau-esque first work. Her writing style and personality are captivating as she engages with a myriad of environments, from local lakes to the Galopagos Islands. As a naturalist writer, she explores the interaction between environments and individuals--the ways in which humanity and ecology play off one another. Fans of Joan Didion will also enjoy the personal feel of Dillard's work as well as the playful use of time and metaphor to capture the dynamism and eccentricity of everyday life. This work is a must-have for any lover/enthusiast of nature and everyone who appreciates flowing prose and lyrical description.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on February 28, 2000
The story, Living Like Weasels, is such powerful encouragement to live fully in the moment with all of one's heart and soul, with no regard for the consequences.The imagery is stunning in its simplicity and strength, using nature as a metaphor for how to be. Thank you Annie Dillard for a wonderful story.