One of my teaching tasks this weekend is to re-read the first half of Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which we’ll be discussing in my “Rivers and Literary Imagination” class this week. Pilgrim is a book I first encountered when I was an undergraduate in Ohio, and it’s a book I’ve re-read so many times, my original copy is literally falling apart. Even though I’ve replaced that original, well-worn copy with a newer edition so my students and I will be on the same page as we discuss the book, I’ve kept my old, yellowed copy with my old notes and underlinings: a tangible connection with whoever I was when I first read it.
Over the years, I’ve downsized my personal library several times. When I was married, my then-husband and I frequently moved, and with each relocation I weeded through my stacks, selling or giving books away. When my then-husband and I divorced, one of the most painful parts of separation was the dividing of our already-diminished book collection into piles labeled “his” and “hers.” Whereas many of my tenure-track colleagues have offices whose walls are lined with bookshelves, as an adjunct I’ve always shared an office, so bookshelf space is at a premium. Unlike those of my teaching colleagues who still have copies of all books they’ve read, taught, or published research on, space constraints mean I occasionally have to do a book-purge, selling, donating, or giving away books I’ve read but don’t plan to revisit.
Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is a whole other story. Like my old, well-annotated copy of The Cloud of Unknowing, my disintegrating undergraduate copy of Pilgrim holds great sentimental value. Although I first heard of Dillard in an undergraduate Honors course titled “Ideas of the Natural World,” Pilgrim wasn’t a required text. Instead, it was on a list of recommended texts, and we each had to choose one title for an in-class presentation.
From the list of texts, I chose to present on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which I had read and enjoyed in high school, and a friend of mine randomly picked Dillard. I remember my friend saying in her presentation that she’d enjoyed the book, so when I saw a remaindered paperback copy at a local bookstore where I and another college friend would often walk, promising one another that we would not return to campus with yet another armload of impulse purchases, I had to break my promise and buy it.
That was at least 19 years ago, and I’ve lost touch with both college friends. The store where I bought my now-crumbling copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is now closed, in a city I’ll probably never have reason to visit again. When I bought that old remaindered copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I had no idea what role it would play in my life; indeed, I had no idea where life would take us, Pilgrim and me, in subsequent years.
When I pulled out my old copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek to review its notes and underlinings this past week, I spent a long time studying the signature on the inside front cover: Lorianne DiSabato. I bought this book as a virginal undergraduate in Ohio, before I’d married, moved to New England, and eventually divorced. I still own a handful of books from my married days as Lorianne Schaub, and I have plenty of books I’ve purchased after I divorced and reclaimed my original last name. But a book that dates from my maiden days feels like a relic, a reminder of that Other Person from my past who shares my present name.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is one of those books I’ve read and re-read at so many different points in my adult life, the text itself has an accompanying personal history, a kind of marginal commentary in which I automatically remember Who I Was and What I Thought at the various times I revisited it. “How many a man,” Thoreau once asked, “has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book,” and this woman, for one, can claim Pilgrim (along with Kate Chopin’s The Awakening and Thoreau’s own Walden) as one such book.
The first time I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, I wished I had written it; upon later re-readings, I grew convinced that I could have written it, had Dillard not beaten me to it. Given Dillard’s interest in nature and spirit, two of my own favorite topics, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek articulates many of the ideas that existed as merely vague impulses until Annie Dillard gave them shape on the page.
Re-reading Pilgrim this time around, the text is so familiar to me, it almost feels like I did write it: just as I experience an odd kind of deja vu whenever I read something from my own blog archives, there’s a familiar nod of remembrance and recollection whenever I revisit some passage of Dillard’s that has nestled itself into my literary subconscious, a line or an image that rang so true the first time I read it, I felt Dillard must have been telepathic to have snatched the thoughts right out of my mind.
Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek is about vision in every sense of the word, as I tried to explain in a graduate research paper I wrote about the book in 1996. So much of what I do these days as both a writer and photographer relies upon this sense of vision, re-reading Pilgrim feels like re-visiting my own creative manifesto. When you live by a creek, Dillard suggests, the constant flow of water and light presents an ever-changing panorama for you to observe and appreciate. If you keep your eyes open to this nonstop show, you can’t help but ask deeper questions about the source of this boundless creativity, and by asking these questions, you open yourself up to realizations you might have never anticipated.
Although I live within easy walking distance of two rivers–the Ashuelot in Keene and the Charles in Newton–I don’t think you need to live by a creek or river to have the kind of epiphany Dillard recounts in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. All you have to have, I think, are wide-open eyes and a curiosity to match. I don’t know if any of my students will date a new era in their life by the reading of this book, but I secretly hope at least one of them does. I can imagine no sweeter thought than that perhaps one day nineteen years from now, one of my now-students will stumble upon her annotated copy of this book, now well-worn and crumbling, and wonder back upon the person she was when a simple paperback encouraged her to open her eyes.