Review: Annie Dillard’s ‘The Abundance’

She published a new book in March — her first since 2007 — and I preordered it exactly ten seconds after I learned of its existence. I started reading it when I should have been writing papers and kept reading it all the way through finals. It was the only book left in my apartment the night before I moved out, and when my mom tried to pack it, I politely but firmly told her that no, she could not “take it off my hands.” (She’d already taken the others off my hands, and I suffered separation anxiety because of it.) (Sadly, I’m not even joking.)

And yes, I’m talking about Annie Dillard. Specifically, I’m talking about her new book, The Abundance: Narrative Essays Old & New.

It’s no secret that I love Annie Dillard. In college, I talked about her so much that it became a joke (“wait, you love Annie Dillard??”), and by the time I reached senior year, my professors expected me to quote her in my papers. I’m like those people who won’t shut up about their kid, except instead of a child, I babble about Annie Dillard. I probably won’t shut up until I get a dog, and even then the dog’s name will be Annie, so there’s really no escaping it. I love Annie Dillard.

I love her, but I hesitate to recommend her. For one thing, I hate explaining her books (“it’s like Thoreau’s Walden but better” “who’s Thoreau?” “……..forget it”). For another, I’m a snob. I don’t want to hand Holy the Firm to just anyone, because just anyone isn’t going to get it.

I’ll admit — as much as I love her, Annie often bewilders me. There are times when I’ll read an essay and wonder what drugs she was on when she wrote it. Geoff Dyer calls her “bonkers.” Eudora Welty confesses in her review of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, “I honestly do not know what she is talking about at such times.” Let’s face it: Annie Dillard is a weirdo

…whom I wholeheartedly adore.

The Abundance offers samples of seven of her nonfiction books and throws in a couple new essays for good measure. I use “new” generously, seeing as the most recent sketch aired on NPR in 2005, but even though its subtitle can be a bit misleading, The Abundance is just as satisfactory as Annie’s other works. I was skeptical heading into it because it’s primarily a book of excerpts, and if Norton anthologies have taught me anything, it’s that excerpts rarely deliver; it’s one thing to condense Moby Dick into a handful of choice chapters, but it’s another thing entirely to reduce The Writing Life to 12 pages and expect it to stand on its own. But The Abundance manages to do that.

I strongly suspect this is because Annie herself picked the paragraphs. Beginning with the infamous “Total Eclipse” and ending with the glittering “Expedition to the Pole,” she takes readers on a tour of her best, most luminous prose. Most of the pieces come from Teaching a Stone to Talk and Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, but An American Childhood, Encounters with Chinese Writers, For the Time Being, and The Writing Life all make appearances, as does my personal favorite, Holy the Firm. In fact, the only nonfiction book left out of the reader is Living by Fiction, a work of literary criticism.

Some have criticized the book for excluding Annie’s poetry and fiction, but I think the decision was a smart one. Narrative nonfiction is what Annie Dillard is known for. The Living, The Maytrees, and Tickets for a Prayer Wheel are good, possibly even excellent, but her nonfiction is transcendent. So it makes sense that her “landmark collection” should celebrate her best and brightest prose.

The Abundance isn’t the wealth of new essays I had hoped for, but it’s still a welcome addition to my shelf. What’s more, I finally have an answer for you when you ask me where to start. Begin with The Abundance, and then fall in love from there. 5/5 stars.


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