Why is it great? I admire the way Dillard turns a piece of natural science into a narrative of anticipation during which no human being makes an entrance.  The aurora borealis, better known as the northern lights, is a spectacular display of colors cause by solar winds interacting with Earth’s magnetic fields.  (That is a simplified description of a complex process.)  Before that vision occurs across the northern sky, its presence can be detected — in this case not by sophisticated electronic equipment but by a simple compass, the invention we use so often as a metaphor for moral direction.  Through her quick inventory, Dillard moves us from very big things to very small — from planes and ships to objects that can fit in desk drawers and in boxes on shelves, where human beings cannot even see them.  They are put away.  But while people are inattentive and insensitive, the needles of compasses are highly responsive — restless, agitated, and trembling. (Editor’s note: This is excerpted from Clark’s latest book, “The Art of X-Ray Reading:  How the Secrets of 25 Great Works of Literature Will Improve Your Writing.”)

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