Both Microscope and Telescope: Looking More Closely in Annie Dillard’s The Abundance

Annie Dillard’s latest collection of essays is called The Abundance.

No lesser word could describe it.

Dillard here collects old and new essays—though the reader must refer to the index to determine which are which, as none in the bunch feels less polished or insightful than the others. It’s easy to be impressed by the grace of Dillard’s writing, but what always brings us back to her work is her hungry exploration of the magnificent in all things—internal and external, mundane and ethereal—on display throughout her body of work. Wherever she looks Dillard sees wonder, and invites the reader to share the vista.

The book opens with a goose-bump-vivid account of a total solar eclipse. The writing is brilliant, but the essay is honest enough to remind the reader that even beautiful words are overshadowed by the experience itself. The focus of the other essays in this collection is rarely so cosmic; Dillard is more likely to mine the sublunary for sublimity, and her digging never fails to uncover the extraordinary. She seems incapable of pondering anything—weasels, skin, family jokes, Disney tourists—without finding in it an echo of the infinite.

She is also unable to blind herself to the natural world in all its messy fullness. She reports on both the beautiful and horrific, side-by-side. The selections reprinted here from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek are as likely to make you shudder as swoon. (If you’ve never read her account of the giant water bug—my vote for the quintessential Dillard passage—I’ll not spoil it for you.)

No less wild than eclipses, tsunamis, and arctic explorations are Dillard’s glances at herself and her family. Alarm at nature’s indifference turns out to be like a kid’s alarm at recognizing her own humanity; both truths tempt us to abandon hope, neither justifies it.

She seems incapable of pondering anything—weasels, skin, family jokes, Disney tourists—without finding in it an echo of the infinite.

The hardest hitting essay, “Old Stone Presbyterian,” is a mere four pages, a quick note to remind readers what a problem the problem of evil is—especially when we first comprehend it. It would be unfair to neglect mentioning how often Dillard handles such dark and complicated topics with charm and humor. She’s writing to illuminate, not to blind.

Most of the essays here are single-sitting reads, but Dillard wisely concludes with two lengthy pieces, “An Expedition to the Pole” and “Sand” that blend history, theology, philosophy, and her own luminous lifetime of experience into meditations on the sublime, the absurd, and the abundance in between. This abundance comprises everything she, or we, could ever encounter. 

This collection is a wonderful encapsulation of Dillard’s career as essayist, compressed into to something flawless. The Abundance is both microscope and telescope—and, somehow, a mirror as well. When I turned the last page I couldn’t at first articulate the rediscovered desire to see farther than I thought I could. To look more closely at everything. To know the world better, without shortchanging any one of its mysteries. To know myself more fully and less vainly. To love others. To love the worthwhile wherever it is found, and to love it abundantly.

Ecco/March 15, 2016/$25.99

Joel Buck lives and writes in the Los Angeles area.