What’s With the Bird-Headed Dwarfs?

The Times has a whole page of Annie Dillard links. Here is an excerpt from the first chapter of For the Time Being:

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 review of this book, written by Wendy Lesser, is interesting because it is a perfect example of a thoughtful review written by someone for whom the book does not seem intended. Lesser acknowledges this, and tries to address it, at the end of the piece:

As a Jewish atheist with little or no feel for nature, I am admittedly not the ideal reader of “For the Time Being.” (The Jewish part is important, for it means that Dillard’s frequent references to the Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Isaac Luria lack, for me, the appeal of exoticism.) But I think this is Annie Dillard’s problem as much as mine. A book like this should not speak just to the converted. Unbeliever that I am, I can be made sympathetic to the ideas and concerns expressed here…

But her impatient dismissal of the book’s central question is evident in the review’s very first paragraph:

The obsessive idea is both simple and, to date, unresolvable: if an all-merciful, all-powerful God exists, how is it that evil also exists? The question is an old one, of course, and it is not clear what makes Dillard want to dredge it up just now.

While I disagree with almost every one of Lesser’s criticisms of the book (and I am, if anything, an agnostic) I admire the way she makes it plain that her response to the book is bound to be affected by her subjective experiences and inclinations. I have a little more difficulty wrapping my head around the notion that a book shouldn’t be written only for those it is written for but also for those it is not.

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