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For the Time Being
Cover of For the Time Being
For the Time Being
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National Bestseller

"Beautifully written and delightfully strange...as earthy as it is sublime...in the truest sense, an eye-opener." —Daily News

From Annie Dillard, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and one of the most compelling writers of our time, comes For the Time Being, her most profound narrative to date. With her keen eye, penchant for paradox, and yearning for truth, Dillard renews our ability to discover wonder in life's smallest—and often darkest—corners.

Why do we exist? Where did we come from? How can one person matter? Dillard searches for answers in a powerful array of images: pictures of bird-headed dwarfs in the standard reference of human birth defects; ten thousand terra-cotta figures fashioned for a Chinese emperor in place of the human court that might have followed him into death; the paleontologist and theologian Teilhard de Chardin crossing the Gobi Desert; the dizzying variety of clouds....
National Bestseller

"Beautifully written and delightfully strange...as earthy as it is sublime...in the truest sense, an eye-opener." —Daily News

From Annie Dillard, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and one of the most compelling writers of our time, comes For the Time Being, her most profound narrative to date. With her keen eye, penchant for paradox, and yearning for truth, Dillard renews our ability to discover wonder in life's smallest—and often darkest—corners.

Why do we exist? Where did we come from? How can one person matter? Dillard searches for answers in a powerful array of images: pictures of bird-headed dwarfs in the standard reference of human birth defects; ten thousand terra-cotta figures fashioned for a Chinese emperor in place of the human court that might have followed him into death; the paleontologist and theologian Teilhard de Chardin crossing the Gobi Desert; the dizzying variety of clouds....
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  • Chapter One I have in my hands the standard manual of human birth defects. Smith's Recognizable Patterns of Human Malformation, fourth edition, by Kenneth Lyons Jones, M.D., professor of pediatrics at UC-San Diego, 1988, is a volume to which, in conscience, I cannot recommend your prolonged attention. In vivid photographs, it depicts many variations in our human array.

            This photograph shows, for example, the bird-headed dwarfs. They are a brother and sister; they sit side by side on a bed. The boy, a blond, is six years old, says the caption, and the girl, brown-haired, is three. Indeed their smooth bodies and clear faces make them look, at first and second glances, to be six and three years old. Both are naked. They have drawn their legs up to their chests. The camera looks down on them. The girl has a supercilious expression, and seems to be looking down her nose at the camera. Bright children often show this amused and haughty awareness: "And who might you be, Bub?"

             The girl's nose is large, her eyes are large, her forehead recedes a bit, and her jaw is small. Her limbs are thin but not scrawny. Her thoughtful big brother looks quite like her. His nose is big. His eyes are enormous. He gazes off to the side, as if wishing he were somewhere else, or reflecting that this camera session will be over soon. His blond hair, cut rather Frenchily in layers, looks ruffled from playing.

            "Friendly and pleasant," the text says of bird-headed dwarfs; they suffer "moderate to severe mental deficiency." That is, the bird-headed dwarf girl whose face I read as showing amused and haughty awareness may, I hope, have been both aware and amused in her life, but she was likely neither haughty nor bright. The cerebrums of both the boy and the girl are faulty. The cerebrum shows a "simple primitive convolutional pattern resembling that of a chimpanzee." They have only eleven pairs of ribs apiece; they cannot straighten their legs; like many bird-headed dwarfs, they have displaced hips. Others have displaced elbows. "Easily distracted," the text says.

            The stunning thing is the doctor's hand, which you notice at third glance: It shows the children in scale. The doctor's hand props the boy up by cupping his shoulders—both his shoulders—from behind. The six-year-old's back, no longer than the doctor's open hand, is only slightly wider than a deck of cards. The children's faces are the length of the doctor's thumb. These people have, as a lifelong symptom, "severe short stature." The boy is the size of an eleven-month-old infant; the girl is the size of a four-month-old infant. If they live and grow, and get their hips fixed, they can expect to reach a height of about three feet. One bird-headed dwarf lived to be seventy-five years old, no taller than a yardstick.

            And friendly and pleasant, but easily distracted. There is a lot to be said for children who are friendly and pleasant. And you—are you easily distracted yourself, these days?

            If your child were a bird-headed dwarf, mentally deficient, you could carry him everywhere. The bird-headed dwarfs and all the babies in Smith's manual have souls, and they all can—and do—receive love and give love. If you gave birth to two bird-headed dwarfs, as these children's mother did—a boy and a girl—you could carry them both everywhere, all their lives, in your arms or in a basket,...
About the Author-
  • Annie Dillard lives in Middletown, Connecticut.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from March 1, 1999
    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.

  • David Bowman, Salon Magazine

    "At heart Annie Dillard's work is a record of her search for God . . . [and] For the Time Being is a brilliant book that . . . sums up God more succinctly than she ever has before."

  • James Zug, Outside Magazine "This uncommon book is a testament to a rare and redeeming curiosity . . . an exhilarating, graceful roundelay of profound questions and suppositions about the human adventure in nature. And as always, reading Dillard makes this mind-expanding experience an emotional one . . . with a voice blending clear-eyed factuality with prismatic meditations on ineffable things."
  • 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. 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."
  • Donna Seaman, Booklist "This absorbing meditation . . . [is] a spare yet exquisitely wrought narrative . . . By turns funny, flinty, and sublime, Dillard meshes the historical, the scientific, the theological, and the personal in a valiant effort to net life's paradoxes and wonders."
  • Kirkus Reviews "A work of piercing loveliness and sadness . . . One of those very rare works that will bear rereading and rereading again, each time revealing something new of itself."
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    Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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