For the Time Being

For the Time Being

4.1 14
by Annie Dillard

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National Bestseller

"Beautifully written and delightfully strange--. As earthy as it is sublime, For the Time Being is, 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,


National Bestseller

"Beautifully written and delightfully strange--. As earthy as it is sublime, For the Time Being is, 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. Vivid, eloquent, haunting, For the Time Being evokes no less than the terrifying grandeur of all that remains tantalizingly and troublingly beyond our understanding.

"Stimulating, humbling, original--. [Dillard] illuminate[s] the human perspective of the world, past, present and future, and the individual's relatively inconsequential but ever so unique place in it."--Rocky Mountain News

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
...[D]isturbing....By degrees a pattern establishes itself in the text....From this pattern several fundamental questions arise....Why doesn't Ms. Dillard simply ask these questions and set about to answer them directly? Because the power of her stories and imagery heightens our desire for answers [and offers] the pleasure of Ms. Dillard's poetry in her finally optimistic moral vision.
The New York Times
James Zug
A testament to a rare and redeeming exhilaratinggraceful roundelay of profound questions and suppositioins about the human adventure in nature. —Outside Magazine
Donna Seaman
A spare yet exquisitely wrought 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. —Booklist
Steven Harvey
Incantory, serious, surprising and timeless...She once again takes on the impossible, plunging into her obsessions with passion, a verbal street fighter in the back alley of the greatest human mystery. —Atlanta Journal Constitution
Erik Huber
Dillard, who frequently quotes form the notebooks of others, seems to be publishing a notebook of her own. Sometimes her book seems the literary equivalent of a mix tape, the relations between threads rarely rising above the level of simplistic corollaries. Her book's mingling of the transcendent and the material, in an apparent effort to demonstrate the immanence of God in all things, makes it seem to be about everything and nothing at all, a compendium of meaning so inclusive it fails to mean very much.
Time Out New York
Patrice Koelsch
The almost musical: variations on themes, themes on astonishing variations....Dillard doesn't wrestle with big metaphysical concepts....Instead, she flashes an artist's kaleidoscope....I can't shake the suspicion that Dillard's mystical pan-entheism is spiritual Prozac for those who suffer from very real philosophical anxiety and depression.
Hungry Mind Review
Nan Goldberg
In Dillard’s meditation on the meaning of life, she focuses on such diverse phenomena as the evolution of sand, human deformities, evil and “acts of God” such as tidal waves and earthquakes, as well as on the wisdom of such religious scholars as Maimonides, Teillard de Chardin and the Baal Shem Tov. It doesn’t come together all that coherently, but Dillard sums up some human truths in images that are unforgettable. Struggling to imagine the idea of more than one hundred and sixty-thousand East Pakistanis drowning in a single tidal wave in 1970, Dillard mentions it to her seven-year-old daughter, who immediately responds, “That’s easy. Lots and lots of dots, in blue water.” Her subjects aren’t easy or pleasant, but they are endlessly challenging. The reading by David Birney is okay, although he occasionally reads the more appalling segments with a sarcasm or bitterness that is the equivalent of kicking a dead horse.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's 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.
Annie Dillard is known for her thoughtful meditations on nature and on the nature of existence. Her essays in her award-winning Pilgrim at Tinker Creek cause the reader to pause and consider each sentence. Both the beautiful and grotesque come together with shocking ease on one page. This characteristic continues in For the Time Being—a book where time leaps decades, centuries, and millennium. From present-day China to China with Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in the 1920s, from distorted babies in San Diego in 1988 to ancient quotations in the Talmud, For the Time Being crosses eras and ideas and images in a sometimes dizzying whirl. Some images linger, some scenes—like that of Teilhard de Chardin—we want to know more about, but the overall flow is not as even as some earlier work. The ebbs and currents cause a bumpy ride. Annie Dillard has grown spiritually since Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and this work reflects that growth in a frank and mature way. The world troubles Dillard and her thoughts on those troubles are worth reading, but this is a step in her progress. There will be more thoughts, more sentences to consider as she goes. Recommended for all public and academic libraries. KLIATT Codes: A—Recommended for advanced students, and adults. 1999, Random House/Vintage, 205p, 21cm, 98-36720, $12.00. Ages 17 to adult. Reviewer: Katherine E. Gillen; Libn., Luke AFB Lib., AZ, September 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 5)
Library Journal
Dillard, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in 1972, has written another splendid meditative and spiritual book. Reflecting on places (from the Wailing Wall to the Great Wall), people (from mass murderers to martyrs of various faiths), and events (from the birth of severely deformed babies to attempts at delaying death), Dillard shares doubts, hopes, and insights that cut across religious boundaries and plumb human perplexities. She leads the reader into deeper questions, considerations of ultimate mystery, and a sense of the holy in the midst of the profane and even the terrible. Suitable for those of various religious traditions as well as unaffiliated seekers and highly recommended for all libraries.--Carolyn M. Craft, Longwood Coll., Farmville, VA
A popular novelist and poet surveys the panorama of our world, past and present. She offers a natural history of sand, describes a batch of newborns on an obstetrical ward, chronicles a family of Mongol horsemen, and tells the story of Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin digging the deserts of China. She brings together defect and beauty, miracle and tragedy, and poses questions about God, nature, evil, and individual existence. No index. 5.5x8<">. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Wendy Lesser
...[C]oncern about the relationship of the one to the many — the individual death, for which we feel grief, set against the incomprehensibly numerous deaths — pervades Dillard's book.
The New York Times Book Review
Paul Feigenbaum
...Dillard muses on those expanses of space and time that, in John Updike's words, "conspire to crush the humans."
WQ: The Wilson Quarterly
Kirkus Reviews
A work of piercing loveliness and sadness, an inquiry into the meaning and significance of life, from Pulitzer-winner Dillard (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, 1972; The Living, 1992). Early on in her inquiry, Dillard quotes St. Augustine: "We are talking about God. What wonder is it that you do not understand? If you do understand, then it is not God." It is this dilemma, the incomprehensibility of God and our profound need to understand, that underlie this graceful examination of the big questions—life and death, good and evil, the source of holiness. Dillard considers these cosmic issues by looking at the particular, whether a blue crab spied in the desert or a newborn being bathed and swaddled by a nurse. Agilely, Dillard weaves together several narrative threads that seem disparate but that through the poetry of her thought and style come together into an Ecclesiastes-like series of examinations. A thread called "Sand" follows paleontologist and religious thinker Pierre Teilhard de Chardin through his long exile to China and the journey on which he discovered Peking Man. And "China" is set during the author's own trip to the East, when she witnessed the unearthing of thousands of statues, an army of clay soldiers dating back 2,200 years and intended to guard the grave of the ancient Emperor Q'in. These soldiers represent the might of the great emperor—but in Dillard's delicate inquiry, they come also to represent his cruelty and by extension the cruelty of tyrants throughout history and, by further extension, all calamities, even natural, that have befallen humankind. "Seeing the broad earth under the open sky," she writes of the clay army, "and a patch of itsliced deep into corridors from which bodies emerge, surprised many people to tears. Who would not weep from shock? I seemed to see our lives from the aspect of eternity, I seemed long dead and looking down." One of those very rare works that will bear rereading and rereading again, each time revealing something new of itself.

From the Publisher
"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."
--David Bowman, Salon 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."
--James Zug, Outside Magazine

"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."
--Publishers Weekly

"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."
--Donna Seaman, Booklist

"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."
--Kirkus Reviews

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

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, and they would never leave you, not even to go to college.

        The Talmud specifies a certain blessing a man says when he sees a person deformed from birth. All the Talmudic blessings begin "Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who . . .". The blessing for this occasion, upon seeing a hunchback or a midget or anyone else deformed from birth, is "Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, WHO CHANGES THE CREATURES."

        A chromosome crosses or a segment snaps, in the egg or the sperm, and all sorts of people result. You cannot turn a page in Smith's Recognizable Patterns of Human Malformation [[ital]] without your heart pounding from simple terror. You cannot brace yourself. Will this peculiar baby live? What do you hope? The writer calls the paragraph describing each defect's effects, treatment, and prognosis "Natural History." Here is a little girl about two years old. She is wearing a dress with a polka-dot collar. The two sides of her face do not meet normally. Her eyes are far apart, and under each one is a nostril. She has no nose at all, only a no-man's-land of featureless flesh and skin, an inch or two wide, that roughly bridges her face's halves. You pray that this grotesque-looking child is mentally deficient as well. But she is not. "Normal intelligence," the text says.

        Of some vividly disfigured infants and children--of the girl who has long hair on her cheeks and almost no lower jaw, of the three-fingered boy whose lower eyelids look as if he is pulling them down to scare someone, of the girl who has a webbed neck and elbows, "rocker-bottom" feet, "sad, fixed features," and no chin--the text says, "Intelligence normal. Cosmetic surgery recommended."

        Turn the page. What could cosmetic surgery do for these two little boys? Their enormous foreheads bulge like those of cartoon aliens; their noses are tiny and pinched, the size of rose thorns; and they lack brows, lashes, and chins. "Normal intelligence."

        Of God, the kabbalah asserts: Out of that which is not, He made that which is. He carved great columns from the impalpable ether.

        Here is one fine smiling infant. Why is a fine smiling infant pictured in this manual? You must read it. The infant does indeed present the glad sight of a newborn baby, but it will develop oddly. Note the tight fist--the expert in the manual points it out to the attending pediatrician--and observe the tiny pit in the skin just before the ear, or the loose skin at the back of the neck. Observe the "thin sparse hair," "small nose," and subtly small fingernails. What baby, you cry, lacks these features?

        These particular babies look normal, or very, very close to normal--close, but no cigar. "Average IQ 50," the text says, or "30." Of Hurler syndrome babies, who are very short, with claw hands, cloudy corneas, short necks, and coarse features: "These patients are usually placid . . . and often loveable. Death usually occurs in childhood."

        According to Inuit culture in Greenland, a person possesses six or seven souls. The souls take the form of tiny people scattered throughout the body.

        Do you suffer what a French paleontologist called "the distress that makes human wills founder daily under the crushing number of living things and stars"? For the world is as glorious as ever, and exalting, but for credibility's sake let's start with the bad news.

        An infant is a pucker of the earth's thin skin; so are we. We arise like budding yeasts and break off; we forget our beginnings. A mammal swells and circles and lays him down. You and I have finished swelling; our circling periods are playing out, but we can still leave footprints in a trail whose end we do know.

        Buddhism notes that it is always a mistake to think your soul can go it alone.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Meet the Author

Annie Dillard lives in Middletown, Connecticut.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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For the Time Being 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I think this book may create some very uncomfortable moments for those who are comfortable in their faith. The range of Dillard's reflections is awesome, and embodies her wide span of experience and powers of observation, as well as her gift for powerful prose.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was highly reccomended by well meaning people. I read it looking for wisdom And found it laking. Maybe if I were 20 years old it would have more meaning but at my advanced age I fond little which was new And helpful. I did not like this writer,s style Of jumping around from one subject to another and then back and forth and so on. The points made could have been made a lot sooner with fewer words and ramblings.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The writing in this book was so beautiful, I never wanted it to end.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In this book, Annie Dillard's unconventionality makes the reader either love her writing or hate it. I would have the say that she did go about her writing style in a rather unique and creative way. It certainly did grab my attention, but I became so frustrated with the book when things would not make sense to me. I admire her for being able to take the risk with the reader, being well-aware that she may not be happy with their extreme reactions. However, I guess this is what writing is all about: creating an impact on the reader. I will never forget her book because it was like nothing I have ever read before, and probably will never read in the future. So if you're interested in being challenged and have the ability to control your patience level, I definitely recommend adding this book to your reading collection.
Guest More than 1 year ago
'For The Time Being' is, all at once, a personal journal of Dillard's theological vision and an objective history of the world. It bears no religious barriers, but reaches deep into the readers' minds, like a deep-tissue massage, to bring us into the big picture of who we are, why we are here, and where we came from. I will walk away from it puzzled, refreshed, stimulated, and confounded! It brings out all sorts of troubling theological paradoxes, but at the same time reassures that we humans, in our perceived greatness, can never expect to comprehend the solutions to these paradoxes. It's definitely not a light bedtime read. . .it serves well as an experiment in critical thinking and will leave me changed (for the better) for the rest of my life.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Very few books will change your life; this is one of them.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
As a high school student, I found that this book was definitely not the typical assigned reading title. By going on her own metaphysical journey, Dillard forces the reader to do the same. I may not have understood the book that well this time around, but I do plan on reading it again later on in life. Maybe then I will be able to gain more from it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I started this book the day I graduated and I have to say that it has been so true to life and influential that I fully intend to pass it on as well as read it again and again. Not to mention the fact that I've already bought ALL of her other books thus far, it truly is a must have. If you read nothing else....
Guest More than 1 year ago
Annie Dillard provides the reader with a unique reading experience. Although her writing is unusual and unconventional, the substance of the book is powerful. Dillard explores the world both physically and spiritually. She challenged me to evaluate my life, beliefs, and values. It forced me to think of things I would not have considered if I did not read this novel. Despite the fact that her writing may be confusing at times, I recommend everyone to experience this novel!