Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Dread Hootenanny

From last spring, the review I wrote for the New York TImes Book Review of Annie Dillard's valedictory essay collection, The Abundance, which I've added to the reading list for a graduate nonfiction course I'll be teaching this fall.
Annie Dillard’s long career as a daredevil nonfiction aerialist began in October 1972, on a camping trip to the coast of Maine. She tells the story in the afterword to the 25th-anniversary edition of “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” Twenty-seven years old, somewhere between her home in the suburban foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains and Maine’s Acadia National Park, she’d picked up a “nature book” by a writer whose previous book she’d admired. His latest effort was a torpid disappointment. Wondering how fireflies make their light, the author hadn’t troubled himself to find out. Dillard, who had been troubling herself and finding things out since childhood, knew the answer to this entomological mystery: Fireflies possess a pair of substances with excellent names, luciferin and luciferase, that are crucial to their conversion of chemical energy to light. Far less explicable to her than the light of fireflies was the dimming of an author’s once-bright mind. “What on earth,” Dillard asked herself, “had happened to this man?” Here, too, she was prepared to hazard an answer: “Decades had happened, that was all.” She resolved to write about the world before she wearied of it, or lost her nerve.
Now that decades have happened to her, I wish I could travel back in time to deliver to that 27-year-old camper on the coast of Maine some reassuring news: On the page at least, nerve is something she would never run short of. As evidence, I’d present her with my review copy of “The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old and New.” In what feels like a valedictory collection, Dillard has ­selected, rearranged and in some cases retitled and revised 22 of the best essays she’s written over the last 40 years, curating what amounts to a retrospective exhibit of her own ­career. The time for a Dillard retrospective seems right. As Geoff Dyer notes in his foreword, the sort of “genre-resistant ­nonfiction” whose possibilities Dillard began scouting out in the early 1970s is now a recognized genre enjoying a vogue. Many readers and writers, Dyer among them, have followed her into those ­borderlands.
Dillard was a pioneer in another sense, daring at age 27 to nominate herself for membership in the explorers’ club of American letters whose most famous exemplars — Thoreau, Muir, Abbey — were men. Last year, profiling her in The Atlantic, Diana Saverin shared a savory quotation from the journals Dillard kept while struggling to write the book that would become “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”: “It’s impossible to imagine another situation where you can’t write a book ’cause you weren’t born with a penis. Except maybe ‘Life With My Penis.’ ” (If you can almost hear a rim shot following that punch line, there are good reasons, divulged in one of the essays included here, “Jokes.”)

The rest of the review is here.