Book Review: Teaching a Stone to Talk

By Kimmy Lewis, 11th Grade


What does memory mean to you? Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard will make you wonder about this question and many more. Dillard tells us her story in a nonfiction collection of personal essays that question humanity, and the fears and struggles that come with it.

To Dillard memory is a complex contradiction. She struggles between wanting to forget, and feeling the responsibility to remember. Her imagery and detail take you into her mind and let you see her thoughts. My favorite chapter was “Living Like Weasels.  In this chapter Dillard explores the possibility of leaving human responsibility behind and becoming a mindless creature such as the weasel she encounters in the forest. Her writing style can be flamboyant, but somehow she pulls it off in a way that makes it seem playful and thought provoking. “It felled the forest, moved the fields, and drained the pond; the world dismantled and tumbled into that black hole of eyes. If you and I looked at each other that way, our skulls would split and drop to our shoulders.” I love this quote because it is so fanciful and wildly unrealistic. Much of Dillard’s imagery is imaginative to the point of chimerical. She packs so much meaning into just a few sentences. Playwright Tom Stoppoard once described poetry as, “...the simultaneous compression of language and expansion of meaning.” If this is true Dillard’s prose is poetic.

She writes another essay about an eclipse she witnessed, and her confusion over the human desire to seek wonder yet dismiss it when we get there. “One turns at last even from glory itself with a sigh of relief. From the depths of mystery, and even from the heights of splendor, we bounce back and hurry for the latitudes of home.”  This follows along one of Dillard’s main themes of the mysterious nature of people, and their failure to communicate their inner selves. People are mysterious, sometimes especially to themselves. Despite our incapacity to overcome our isolation from each other, we never give up.

Much of the book is a telling of her experiences. She tells interesting stories about interesting people, interesting places, and interesting circumstances. But those things are not what the stories are about; those things are a background, a green screen onto which she projects her themes about the human condition, and reaction to living life. The background for the stories is not what is significant. Dillard herself says, “For what is significance? It is significance for people. No people no significance. This is all I have to tell you.”

You could read Dillard’s stories and just get the surface; the surface is interesting too. Her extensive metaphors, poetic language, and colorful imagery capture the reader without having to dig too deep. But she has more to offer. In the end she is telling you about ourselves through her struggle to understand herself and it’s worth taking the time to notice. This is all I have to tell you.