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Annie Dillard remembers. She remembers the exhilaration of whipping a snowball at a car and having it hit straight on. She remembers playing with the skin on her mother's knuckles, which "didn't snap back; it lay dead across her knuckle in a yellowish ridge." She remembers the compulsion to spend a whole afternoon (or many whole afternoons) endlessly pitching a ball at a Annie Dillard remembers. She remembers the exhilaration of whipping a snowball at a car and having it hit straight on. She remembers playing with the skin on her mother's knuckles, which "didn't snap back; it lay dead across her knuckle in a yellowish ridge." She remembers the compulsion to spend a whole afternoon (or many whole afternoons) endlessly pitching a ball at a target. In this intoxicating account of her childhood, Dillard climbs back inside her 5-, 10-, and 15-year-old selves with apparent effortlessness. The voracious young Dillard embraces headlong one fascination after another--from drawing to rocks and bugs to the French symbolists. "Everywhere, things snagged me," she writes. "The visible world turned me curious to books; the books propelled me reeling back to the world." From her parents she inherited a love of language--her mother's speech was "an endlessly interesting, swerving path"--and the understanding that "you do what you do out of your private passion for the thing itself," not for anyone else's approval or desire. And one would be mistaken to call the energy Dillard exhibits in An American Childhood merely youthful; "still I break up through the skin of awareness a thousand times a day," she writes, "as dolphins burst through seas, and dive again, and rise, and dive."


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Annie Dillard remembers. She remembers the exhilaration of whipping a snowball at a car and having it hit straight on. She remembers playing with the skin on her mother's knuckles, which "didn't snap back; it lay dead across her knuckle in a yellowish ridge." She remembers the compulsion to spend a whole afternoon (or many whole afternoons) endlessly pitching a ball at a Annie Dillard remembers. She remembers the exhilaration of whipping a snowball at a car and having it hit straight on. She remembers playing with the skin on her mother's knuckles, which "didn't snap back; it lay dead across her knuckle in a yellowish ridge." She remembers the compulsion to spend a whole afternoon (or many whole afternoons) endlessly pitching a ball at a target. In this intoxicating account of her childhood, Dillard climbs back inside her 5-, 10-, and 15-year-old selves with apparent effortlessness. The voracious young Dillard embraces headlong one fascination after another--from drawing to rocks and bugs to the French symbolists. "Everywhere, things snagged me," she writes. "The visible world turned me curious to books; the books propelled me reeling back to the world." From her parents she inherited a love of language--her mother's speech was "an endlessly interesting, swerving path"--and the understanding that "you do what you do out of your private passion for the thing itself," not for anyone else's approval or desire. And one would be mistaken to call the energy Dillard exhibits in An American Childhood merely youthful; "still I break up through the skin of awareness a thousand times a day," she writes, "as dolphins burst through seas, and dive again, and rise, and dive."

30 review for An American Childhood

  1. 4 out of 5

    Chrissie

    I adored this book from start to finish. First let me praise the audiobook narration by Alexandra O'Karma. She reads slowly. She reads softly, but you hear every word she says. She leaves it up to the listener to interpret the lines, to recognize the subtle humor. Some may think she doesn't read with enough spark. For me the soft tone fit the beauty of the lines. Parts read as prose poetry. She gives you time to think. I loved this book because of the wisdom of the author, what she says about I adored this book from start to finish. First let me praise the audiobook narration by Alexandra O'Karma. She reads slowly. She reads softly, but you hear every word she says. She leaves it up to the listener to interpret the lines, to recognize the subtle humor. Some may think she doesn't read with enough spark. For me the soft tone fit the beauty of the lines. Parts read as prose poetry. She gives you time to think. I loved this book because of the wisdom of the author, what she says about growing up, the process, the path. She captures how a child becomes aware of their own individuality. She captures the joy of youth – be it singing at the top of your voice or “flying down a street” with your arms flailing. I loved the beauty of the lines. I adored the subtle humor. There is lots of humor, but you have to think as the author does to perceive it. It is not smashed in your face. I also loved this book because I am a child of the 50s just as the author is. She was born in 1945, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1951. I believe that readers of our generation will recognize much in this book that strikes a chord. The book follows the author from five years of age through her high school years, her summers on Lake Eire with her grandmother, rock collecting, bicycling, music, her interest in drawing, then later boys, literature, history, current events. You get the history of Pittsburgh, the red scare of the fifties and the books we all read. You get adolescence, not an easy time for anyone. Maybe the book works best for those of us born in the forties and fifties. For those of us raised on books. Books I had at home, they are mentioned here: The Natural Way to Draw, Field book of ponds and streams; an introduction to the life of fresh water. Bird books. Stone books. Books about nature which led to a need for a microscope. Art books. Do you know Giacometti’s “Walking Man” statue? Books our parents loved and believed in and so molded not only them but also their kids, us! Then in turn our kids. Even if our parents' world and now ours has altered, how we go forward will always be shaped by what lay before. To clarify: the book is about growing up. It is about being raised in the fifties. It is not just about books, but books and education and curiosity about life are central.

  2. 5 out of 5

    David

    Already at twenty-three, childhood seems to me a very remote region of my past, and as I was impinged upon with a small pang of nostalgia for youth, I picked up Annie Dillard's An American Childhood - her memoir of her Pittsburgh youth. While there are a number of poignant moments, and elegant turns of phrase, the work as a whole feels a bit shallow, a bit too much on the surface of things. In his Nobel Speech, William Faulkner said that the only thing worth writing about was the problems of the Already at twenty-three, childhood seems to me a very remote region of my past, and as I was impinged upon with a small pang of nostalgia for youth, I picked up Annie Dillard's An American Childhood - her memoir of her Pittsburgh youth. While there are a number of poignant moments, and elegant turns of phrase, the work as a whole feels a bit shallow, a bit too much on the surface of things. In his Nobel Speech, William Faulkner said that the only thing worth writing about was the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself - Annie Dillard misses this mark repeatedly. She has some nice things to say about memory, about time, about childhood, but she is timid in analyzing herself, in analyzing those that she loves. That is the danger in memoirs, one is forever at risk, over-exposed. An American Childhood reads more like the perusal of a family photo album than of a true memoir (for example Nabokov's Speak, Memory wherein the autobiographical content seems almost peripheral to the feeling-out of the Self and of the rapture of Time). The memoir begins with, what I believe, is its greatest sequence: the story of young Annie's father's intended but incomplete trip down the Ohio River. Something which he had dreamed about, obsessed over, given up what constituted his life for, but ultimately had to forgo this dream under the pressure to be a present father. Isn't this really the American Childhood, if not ultimately the American Life? It seems to me that in the present day, dreams are often caught under the grinding cogs of life, sacrificed for stability, for fulfilling the expectations of others, for living up to the normal, the uniform. Young Annie elaborates about a number of her youthful passions: reading, drawing, baseball, amateur geology, etc. And though she is impassioned by them, they ultimately do not constitute a fire for her, that passion which is blinding and soul-rapturing, which occupies the heart and mind and blocks out everything else. She lives a rather privileged Pittsburgh childhood, she vacations on Lake Erie, she plays baseball with boys, and eventually grows up to dance with them. She describes childhood as something that must be "woken up from" - but is that childhood or is it that wonder that lives in childhood? It seemed that her many wonders were supplanted by many routines as the memoir progressed. Hazy, honied memories - vague and variegated, disjointed, but poignant, were replaced by witty caricatures of her fellow Pittsburghers, her family, and herself. But what dreams did she harbor and let go? Ultimately this memoir lacked that intermittent pull at the heart for me. There was no secret, no heartbreak, no wonder even. Every life is a story of loss, every room is haunted by ghosts, phantoms of lives not lived, paths not taken. We as Americans have become tricked into believing that the American Dream is about getting a good job, having children, moving to the suburbs, playing lawn tennis with the neighbors, and retiring to a family plot beneath an eighty-year old elm tree. But that isn't it. It's taking stupid risks, making big mistakes, wanting something because you want it, because you need it. It isn't about making money, and maybe you will never make money doing it, maybe you will lose all your money trying to get it, but it is that it that makes this life worth living. It is that it that is the heart of literature. Annie's father and his trip down the Ohio, that is what the American story should be, what it was once. It is a crime to live life as a progression of photographs, flimsy pictures taped to the infinite corridor of time. Life is motion, it is action and trajectory, and we are driven forward only by ourselves. It is no wonder that the great tragedy of the 21st century is the tragedy of ennui. It is that ennui that gets the better of us, it is the easy, the normal, but it is death, it is stasis, it is not life. To be bored is to be waiting, to be in the purgatory of life. May everyone's life be a boat ride down the river. Don't turn back, or be turned to a pillar of salt.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Bentley ★ Bookbastion.net

    I finally made it through what I can only refer to as the worst book I have ever read in my life. Assigned reading for a Contemporary Literature course I'm taking in college, I had no idea what to expect when I went into this book. I knew it was a memoir, and although I am not the biggest nonfiction fan, I started it with an open mind, expecting to come away with some frame of reference about Dillard's life and times growing up as a child in the 1950s. What I came away with instead was a I finally made it through what I can only refer to as the worst book I have ever read in my life. Assigned reading for a Contemporary Literature course I'm taking in college, I had no idea what to expect when I went into this book. I knew it was a memoir, and although I am not the biggest nonfiction fan, I started it with an open mind, expecting to come away with some frame of reference about Dillard's life and times growing up as a child in the 1950s. What I came away with instead was a headache caused by meandering prose extrapolating on abstract thought followed by abstract thought, written by a wholly pretentious and unlikable narrator. One major rule of writing an author learns early in their career is to show, don't tell. Dillard clearly didn't get the memo. Despite being sold as a memoir, the reader only gets all too infrequent glimpses into what her childhood was actually like. Instead, the reader is told, repeatedly, about vague moments in Dillard's childhood where she was struck by some abstract thought that placed her on a new path and left her thirsty for some new knowledge, causing her to almost obsessively collect and recite pointless information on the subject of her interests at the time. This can and did include: reading, writing, drawing, baseball, insect collecting, science and rock collecting. That's right. There's a full chapter in this book on Dillard's childhood rock collection. Fascinating stuff. One of the most wildly frustrating things about this book is Dillard's narration. She recounts all of these insights into her childhood behavior and thinking within meandering prose that visits one abstract idea after another, while never really expanding actual events from her childhood, which a memoir typically does. Instead, we as the readers are asked to simply accept the things that she says about what she was thinking as a young child at face value as whole truth, which I just couldn't do. Given that there is no evidence to her actually thinking this way, I simply cannot reconcile the mature, introspective self that the narrator presents against the rude, anti-social child that she often portrays within the text as well. For a child that Dillard tries to sell as someone who was always acutely aware of the world around her, she never once acknowledges the privileged life she lead, nor does she really ever comment on the fact that a normal, "aware" child -like the one she tries to sell in the pages of this book- does not typically follow their grandparents African American maid around "from room to room, trying to get her to spill the beans about being black." (pg. 216) The latter half of the book is especially rife with a socially maladjusted young woman who obsessively fixates on things like foreign languages, rocks, statues or bugs while her relationships with actual people around her self destruct. It becomes fairly evident that the advanced, intelligent child that she tries to sell as absolute fact is nothing more than the construct of a pretentious author who set out to write a memoir only to realize that she didn't really remember much of her childhood and so she had to fill in the gaps with her own, current beliefs and views. The final 50 or so pages of this book are a particularly brutal slog. Frankly, it reads like a first draft, full of pointless and unnecessary passages that somehow escaped an editor saying to Dillard: "why is this in here, really?" It is chock full of abstract thought after abstract thought that hardly connect to one another at all, such as the passage where Dillard recounts her last trip to Florida as a child, how she addressed her sister entirely in French, and immediately follows this with a paragraph about how her grandmother asked her "when we were alone, what exactly it was that homosexuals did." (pg. 220) with absolutely no reason, this and many, many other random (read: made up) proclamations are inserted into the middle of Dillard's diatribes about what a wonderfully advanced and intelligent child she was. This book was absolutely infuriating, and now that I'm finished with it, I will be parting company with it and PRAYING that I never come across another required reading by Dillard again, because I certainly won't read her work again by choice.

  4. 5 out of 5

    William

    What is it like to "grow up?" How thrilling and disconcerting is it to discover our distinctness from our parents? What do we do with freedom as found in a bicycle? What changes when we discover boys (or girls)? Annie remembers, and helps you remember, too. Some of her memories seem like my own, and this is one of those great reads as an adult where you feel the reality of a book blending with your soul. I have many such books in my heart of hearts from childhood. I can't remember if I felt wet What is it like to "grow up?" How thrilling and disconcerting is it to discover our distinctness from our parents? What do we do with freedom as found in a bicycle? What changes when we discover boys (or girls)? Annie remembers, and helps you remember, too. Some of her memories seem like my own, and this is one of those great reads as an adult where you feel the reality of a book blending with your soul. I have many such books in my heart of hearts from childhood. I can't remember if I felt wet mud between my toes before I read Twain, or after. Have I built a fire in the winter, or did Kjelgaard or Jack London just describe it to me? Did I run down my street, feeling as if I were flying, after getting a new pair of sneakers, or did I fuse that memory from the pages of Bradbury? I pity those who have only surfed the web, and haven't read by flashlight under their covers, or stalled their mothers demands with "One more chapter!" Annie Dillard remembers and her memories become yours, and you suddenly KNOW what it is to feel childhood turning to young adulthood, and how observation and experience become knowledge and wisdom. She is a poet, and a salty honest woman, and I am glad to have walked in her pages.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Ellen

    In An American Childhood Dillard traces her life from early childhood into adolescence. Her self-stated project is to show how a child wakes up to life, moving from the self-absorbed now-ness of early childhood to the rumblings of consciousness, the awareness that one is alive. As if to underscore Dillards position as an example of childhood rather than the works actual subject, she begins her autobiography by describing Pittsburghs topography and history, followed by a chapter about her fathers In An American Childhood Dillard traces her life from early childhood into adolescence. Her self-stated project is to show how a child “wakes up” to life, moving from the self-absorbed now-ness of early childhood to the rumblings of consciousness, the awareness that one is alive. As if to underscore Dillard’s position as an “example” of childhood rather than the work’s actual subject, she begins her autobiography by describing Pittsburgh’s topography and history, followed by a chapter about her father’s trip down the Mississippi to find the origins of jazz. As she proceeds to describe her mother, her neighborhood, her relentless energy and interest in books, art, rocks, flora, fauna, and consciously “seeing” she repeatedly adds, like a denouement, that she was waking up: “I woke in bits, like all children, piecemeal over the years. I discovered myself and the world, and forgot them, and discovered them again. I woke at intervals until, by that September when Father went down the river, the intervals of waking tipped the scales, and I was more often awake then not. I noticed this process of waking, and predicted with terrifying logic that one of these years not far away I would be awake continuously and never slip back, and never be free of myself again." As Samuel Hazo and other critics have noted, Dillard’s autobiography works best in its earlier chapters where she focuses on her childhood; her depiction of her adolescence often comes closer to caricature than characterization. Partially adapted from a prior publication

  6. 5 out of 5

    Krista

    My mother is just a year younger than Annie Dillard, so I kept thinking of her as I read this memoir. Their places in time might have been the same, but their circumstances could not have been more different: While Dillard was raised with privilege in the big industrial city of Pittsburgh, complete with private schools and lake homes and country clubs and wearing white gloves to the right Presbyterian church, my mother was raised in relative poverty in an Irish Catholic family in Charlottetown, My mother is just a year younger than Annie Dillard, so I kept thinking of her as I read this memoir. Their places in time might have been the same, but their circumstances could not have been more different: While Dillard was raised with privilege in the big industrial city of Pittsburgh, complete with private schools and lake homes and country clubs and wearing white gloves to the right Presbyterian church, my mother was raised in relative poverty in an Irish Catholic family in Charlottetown, PEI. In essence, though, they were very similar-- tomboys whose parents indulged them on the one hand while expecting them to conform to society's expectations on the other, and more importantly, they were both curious little girls who haunted their local libraries to find the answers to the questions that most fascinated them. My mother was recently telling the story about being in school as a young girl and repeatedly asking the nun who taught her why an omniscient and omnipotent God would allow people to be born who were destined to suffer, or worse, who were destined for eternal damnation. Unable to answer the question, and flustered in front of the class, the nun sent my mother out to stand in the hall. When Annie Dillard had these same questions as a teenager, she wrote a fierce letter to her minister, quitting the church. In a follow-up meeting with the assistant minister, she was offered some books that might address her questions. The best answer she found was in C.S. Lewis, who said, "Forget it". As Dillard summarises: The sum of human suffering we needn't worry about: There is plenty of suffering, but no one suffers the sum of it. I wonder what my mother would make of An American Childhood? I recently listened to The Writing Life and was fascinated as Dillard described her writing studio, complete with a collection of stones and bones that she worries in her hands like talismans when daydreaming on her cot. The studio also contains paints and sketchbooks, along with various reference materials. How interesting, then, it is to see that these materials have always been with her; that from childhood she has been endeavoring to merge scientific inquiry with artistic expression. An American Childhood is about awakening in childhood, about realising that the world is something outside yourself that you must find your place in. Children ten years old wake up and find themselves here, discover themselves to have been here all along; is this sad? They wake like sleepwalkers, in full stride; they wake like people brought back from cardiac arrest or from drowning: in medias res, surrounded by familiar people and objects, equipped with a hundred skills. They know the neighborhood, they can read and write English, they are old hands at the commonplace mysteries, and yet they feel themselves to have just stepped off the boat, just converged with their bodies, just flown down from a trance, to lodge in an eerily familiar life already well under way. I woke in bits, like all children, piecemeal over the years. I discovered myself and the world, and forgot them, and discovered them again. I woke at intervals until, by that September when Father went down the river, the intervals of waking tipped the scales, and I was more often awake than not. I noticed this process of waking, and predicted with terrifying logic that one of these years not far away I would be awake continuously and never slip back, and never be free of myself again. This idea is restated many ways throughout the book, in language gorgeous and poetic. By contrast and by coincidence, I am also listening to The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson right now. He is six years younger than Annie Dillard, and although he's from a less privileged background in Des Moines, Iowa, he writes of his own childhood, with great humour, about many of the same experiences: Polio scares; the atomic age; long drives in big, American cars; baseball and local variants; and most of all, enjoying the spoils of being a child during a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity. This book does not describe my own childhood-- I don't think I ever had this burning curiosity, I certainly don't remember the transition from self-absorbed to self-aware. Was it because I watched too much TV instead of making explorations that would lead me to the loose threads that lead to larger inquiries? I came to these threads later in life-- am I poorer for it? I don't know. Lately, whenever my older daughter asks me if I know something or other, her computer geek boyfriend will chirp up, "Did you google it? You just need to google it." So far as it goes, he's right-- anyone can find the answer to anything if they google it, but does that lead to wisdom? If you use google to find a definition for a word, you're not going to accidentally discover other words as you would when flipping through a physical dictionary. Is the availability of unlimited knowledge at one's fingertips the assassin of curiosity? Will my daughters find the threads? Related to this: Whole stacks at the library held books devoted to things you knew nothing about. The boundary of knowledge receded, as you poked around in books, like Lake Erie's rim as you climbed its cliffs. And each area of knowledge disclosed another, and another. Knowledge wasn't a body, or a tree, but instead air, or space, or being -- whatever pervaded, whatever never ended and fitted into the smallest cracks and the widest space between stars. On self-awareness: Knowing you are alive is feeling the planet buck under you, rear, kick, and try to throw you; you hang on to the ring. It is riding the planet like a log downstream, whooping. Or, conversely, you step aside from the dreaming fast loud routine and feel time as stillness about you, and hear the silent air asking in so thin a voice, Have you noticed yet that you will die? Do you remember, remember, remember? Then you feel your life as a weekend, a weekend you cannot extend, a weekend in the country. A bit related to my musings on Joan Didion's apparent need to hold on to mementos and experiences when reviewing Blue Nights : Some days I felt an urgent responsibility to each change of light outside the sunporch windows. Who would remember any of it, any of this our time, and the wind thrashing the buckeye limbs outside? Somebody had to do it, somebody had to hang on to the days with teeth and fists, or the whole show had been in vain. That it was impossible never entered my reckoning. For work, for a task, I had never heard the word. On her headmistress recommending a college that would "smooth off her rough edges": I had hopes for my rough edges. I wanted to use them as a can opener, to cut myself a hole in the world's surface, and exit through it. Would I be ground, instead, to a nub? Would they send me home, an ornament to my breed, in a jewelry bag? On rock-collecting: Nothing was as it seemed. The earth was like a shut eye. Mother's not dead, dear -- she's only sleeping. Pry open the thin lid and find a crystalline intelligence inside, a rayed and sidereal beauty. Crystals grew inside rocks like arithmetical flowers. They lengthened and spread, adding plane to plane in awed and perfect obedience to an absolute that even the stones -- maybe only the stones --understood. Like prying open the thin lid of chaotic, individual experience and exposing the order and universality within? The connections between Dillard's youthful scientific enquiry and later artistry are made clear. On a final note, how wonderful are Annie Dillard's parents? The wise-cracking, prank-pulling mother and Dixieland-loving, Huck Finn wannabe father, that "houseful of comedians", may have been the greatest treasures in that privileged home.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Cheryl

    Annie Dillard grew up in Pittsburgh during the 1950s, and she captured those days in this memoir, documenting her childhood, while also detailing the rich history of Pittsburgh--I especially loved the information on Andrew Carnegie and of Pittsburgh's wealth which came from, "aluminum, glass, coke, electricity, copper, natural gas--and the banking and transportation industries that put up the money and moved the goods." Reading with the expectation of drama does not get you anywhere because Annie Dillard grew up in Pittsburgh during the 1950s, and she captured those days in this memoir, documenting her childhood, while also detailing the rich history of Pittsburgh--I especially loved the information on Andrew Carnegie and of Pittsburgh's wealth which came from, "aluminum, glass, coke, electricity, copper, natural gas--and the banking and transportation industries that put up the money and moved the goods." Reading with the expectation of drama does not get you anywhere because Dillard did not have a dramatic childhood. She grew up in a privileged family, with well-read parents and a very "aware" mother. "I had small experience of the evil hopelessness, pain, starvation, and terror that the world spread about," she wrote, "I had barely seen people's malice and greed. I believed that in civilized countries, torture had ended with the Enlightenment. Of nation's cruel options I knew nothing. My optimism was endless; it grew sky-high within the narrow bounds of my isolationism." Dillard writes with the strokes of an architect and wordsmith: with carefully constructed sentences and a fluid poetic flow, she makes everyday descriptions seem easy. This book reads like a philosophical and metaphysical record of her childhood, the tone a bit similar to (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek . What I liked was learning about that piece of American culture, Dillard's vivid portrayal of her white-collared family upbringing, her love of books and the arts. It certainly helps you understand how she wrote a book like Pilgrim at only twenty seven years old. Like Pilgrim though, I had a hard time really getting to fully see Annie Dillard, she has a way of giving you just enough, then withdrawing. She gives you snippets: like one or two sentences of two boys she was in love with over the years, or a paragraph of teenage rebellion, or a quick note that she had a boyfriend...her teenage years are written with care so she doesn't really reveal. But oh what meaningful facts captured in just the right way with beautiful prose from the observations of a bookish young girl and a mature and talented writer...

  8. 4 out of 5

    Michael Canoeist

    Annie Dillard has an odd style that grates on my readerly ears. She makes big, dubious generalizations to talk about a small detail. That wears on me enough. Then, a paragraph later, she sometimes simply contradicts the original generalization. The first time or two were when I wanted to throw the book across the room, had it had enough heft to make that enjoyable. It doesn't. And this is no more "an American childhood" than yours, mine, or a thousand thousand others might be considered. I Annie Dillard has an odd style that grates on my readerly ears. She makes big, dubious generalizations to talk about a small detail. That wears on me enough. Then, a paragraph later, she sometimes simply contradicts the original generalization. The first time or two were when I wanted to throw the book across the room, had it had enough heft to make that enjoyable. It doesn't. And this is no more "an American childhood" than yours, mine, or a thousand thousand others might be considered. I tried, at least for a while, but I found nothing especially emblematic in her tale to warrant the title -- unless you put a LOT of weight on the article "an" in there. Another irritating tic of her writing is to anthropomorphize natural phenomena, like the wind, or time, or clouds, or.... almost anything. I read her first, or one of her first books, Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek, which got a lot of press when it first appeared. I read it a year or two later, and could not see what the fuss was about. So I guess she's not for me and I will avoid any of her others. But I want to extend that judgment somewhat, in the case of this particular book. When did memoirs become so ordinary? Once upon a time, people who wrote memoirs could at least make a claim on your attention for something exceptional about their lives. This book reads as a lonnnggg exercise in monologue -- by someone from whom the reader keeps waiting for a clue about why..... why are you telling me all this? There was never any why to this book.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Holli

    I chose this one for the Book Discussion group because I was looking for a memoir and I remembered really liking this when I read it 21 years ago on the eve of Gabe's birth. I liked it just as much the second time around and reading it again now, on the eve of Gabe's transition into adulthood, made me realize what an impact this book has had on my life and the way I have raised my children. When I read it the first time, I kept thinking about how I spent too much of my own childhood watching I chose this one for the Book Discussion group because I was looking for a memoir and I remembered really liking this when I read it 21 years ago on the eve of Gabe's birth. I liked it just as much the second time around and reading it again now, on the eve of Gabe's transition into adulthood, made me realize what an impact this book has had on my life and the way I have raised my children. When I read it the first time, I kept thinking about how I spent too much of my own childhood watching Gilligan's Island instead of following my passions. Looking back on my sons' childhoods, I think they are a little closer to Dillard's than mine was. This may largely be due to our decision to get rid of the TV for several years while they were growing up. Anyway, I once again really enjoyed Dillard's ability to turn a phrase, her humor, her insights, and her images. Her description of the crippled moth has remained with me all these years. I was happy to be reminded of "Terwilliger bunts one" and her "hopes for her rough edges." The good news, as Dillard reminds me is that our "waking up" to ourselves is a continual process that can last through childhood and beyond.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Lori

    I liked that contemporary window into the Salk polio vaccine trials. In 1953, Jonas Salks Virus Research Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh had produced a controversial vaccine for polio. The small stories in the Pittsburgh Press and the Post-Gazette were coming out in Life and Time. It was too quick, said medical colleagues nationwide: Salk had gone public without first publishing everything in the journals. He rushed out a killed-virus serum without waiting for a safe live-virus one, I liked that contemporary window into the Salk polio vaccine trials. “In 1953, Jonas Salk’s Virus Research Laboratory at the University of Pittsburgh had produced a controversial vaccine for polio. The small stories in the Pittsburgh Press and the Post-Gazette were coming out in Life and Time. It was too quick, said medical colleagues nationwide: Salk had gone public without first publishing everything in the journals. He rushed out a killed-virus serum without waiting for a safe live-virus one, which would probably be better. Doctors walked out of professional meetings; some quit the foundation that funded the testing. Salk was after personal glory, they said. Salk was after money, they said. Salk was after money, they said. Salk was after big prizes. Salk tested the serum on five thousand Pittsburgh school-children, of whom I was three, because I kept changing elementary schools. Our parents, like ninety-five percent of all Pittsburgh parents, signed the consent forms. Did the other mothers then bend over the desk in relief and sob? I don’t know. But I don’t suppose any of them gave much of a damn what Salk had been after.”

  11. 4 out of 5

    Mark

    "What can we make of the inexpressible joy of children? It is a kind of gratitude, I thinkthe gratitude of the ten-year-old who wakes to her own energy and the brisk challenge of the world. You thought you knew the place and all its routines, but you see you hadnt known. Whole stacks at the library held books devoted to things you knew nothing about. " Private life, book life, took place where words met imagination without passing through the world. I could just pack this little review with "What can we make of the inexpressible joy of children? It is a kind of gratitude, I think—the gratitude of the ten-year-old who wakes to her own energy and the brisk challenge of the world. You thought you knew the place and all its routines, but you see you hadn’t known. Whole stacks at the library held books devoted to things you knew nothing about. " “Private life, book life, took place where words met imagination without passing through the world.” I could just pack this little review with quotes. I flagged so many. What a joy this memoir is and it really captures the wonder of childhood, unlike anything else I have read. A rock, a leaf, a moth, a baseball mitt and of course the mystical discovery of books and all the doors and windows that are flung open. Dillard can dip into the metaphysical at times, leaving the reader, somewhat confounded but she always returns to the narrative, with lovely abandon.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Lena

    This is a lie, I didn't finish this, but I feel like I've spent too much time on this book and it's going to push me into a reading slump. It was well written, but this book is exactly as the title suggests, "An American Childhood." I guess the genius or whatever behind this is Dillard managed to reenter her younger selves' minds. And that's fantastic and all, but ask this, "Do I really want to read about your childhood?" What is it about your childhood that makes it worthy of being written down This is a lie, I didn't finish this, but I feel like I've spent too much time on this book and it's going to push me into a reading slump. It was well written, but this book is exactly as the title suggests, "An American Childhood." I guess the genius or whatever behind this is Dillard managed to reenter her younger selves' minds. And that's fantastic and all, but ask this, "Do I really want to read about your childhood?" What is it about your childhood that makes it worthy of being written down and published? What is it that makes it worth wasting ink and putting it on the skins of dead trees? What do you want me to understand from your memoir? What kind of revelation do you come to? Maybe I stopped too soon or whatever (65% I think) but like, if I'm already past the halfway point of your book, I should have at least gotten an inkling of your purpose in writing this book. If this book wasn't so beautifully written and full of philosophical thoughts and metaphors that's supposed to make me "think", this book would have gotten one star. Ugh, I'm going to have to come back to this later. Maybe. Whatever. I'm done with this.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Mya Burns

    this book was too boring, couldn't finish it. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was good, there were a few redeeming parts, but this one just felt like someone was holding me hostage at a party, telling me stories from their childhood that I couldn't care less about.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Carol

    Dillard's writing is amazing. I couldn't put her memoir down. Born in 1950 to her parents, Frank and Pam, Dillard tells us vignettes of her life-- first part focused on her childhood and her family; second part covers her preteen and teenage years; and the last section when she rebels (quits, and later returns, her Presbyterian Church.) The Epilogue reflects her adulthood. What I loved most was how she shared vivid memories of her life, which in some cases brought back some of my childhood Dillard's writing is amazing. I couldn't put her memoir down. Born in 1950 to her parents, Frank and Pam, Dillard tells us vignettes of her life-- first part focused on her childhood and her family; second part covers her preteen and teenage years; and the last section when she rebels (quits, and later returns, her Presbyterian Church.) The Epilogue reflects her adulthood. What I loved most was how she shared vivid memories of her life, which in some cases brought back some of my childhood memories. Her father was an interesting character. How many dads leave home to journey down the river to New Orleans? I also appreciated that whatever books she read, she made it possible for the reader to look up the title, in case they wanted to read it on their own. Great writer, great memoir!

  15. 4 out of 5

    Hannah

    A lovely, maddening book. Its not the suspenseful or exotic or tragic kind of autobiography that kept me turning pages well past my bedtime, but it did capture certain childhood longings and sensations with such clear familiarity, that it felt at times like reading pages out of my own life. Dillards way with words is hard to match; her metaphors startle, and her similes shine. Every time I read her magnificent prose, Im filled with an admiration that borders on envy. But. At the same time, she, A lovely, maddening book. It’s not the suspenseful or exotic or tragic kind of autobiography that kept me turning pages well past my bedtime, but it did capture certain childhood longings and sensations with such clear familiarity, that it felt at times like reading pages out of my own life. Dillard’s way with words is hard to match; her metaphors startle, and her similes shine. Every time I read her magnificent prose, I’m filled with an admiration that borders on envy. But. At the same time, she, as a character, is terribly hard to love in this book. Her upper-crust Pittsburgh way of life, her country-club afternoons, her white-glove dance lessons, her elite girls’ school ennuie, and all the other trappings of high society come across as sterile, insulated, and taken for granted. Her interior life fairly eclipses her relational life, so that the whole autobiography focuses on her solitary musings rather than any real actions or friendships or plot points. Every person in her life—even her loving and lively parents—still somehow come across as distant and even cold. Perhaps it’s because she keeps dialogue to a bare minimum? If her inner musings weren’t so wonderful, this book would be an unbearable bore, but with her gift for keen observation and beautiful description, she manages to keep the book afloat. Most disappointing was the end. Her teenage self is simply a rage-filled, hormonally charged brat, and there her American childhood ends—not with a bang but a whine.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Amanda

    Excellent. I think anyone who is curious and bookish would love Annie Dillard.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Amy

    This is actually a re-read; some teacher gave it to my class back in middle school. Unusually, I remembered phrase, images, and pieces of this after reading it just once, and I can remember thinking yes, this is exactly how I feel -- how did she capture it? It stayed with me long after I had forgotten the title, and the storyline, and the plot. I googled to see what book it had come from; quite coincidentally, my parents shipped it over with some other books of mine. At any rate, as a child/teen This is actually a re-read; some teacher gave it to my class back in middle school. Unusually, I remembered phrase, images, and pieces of this after reading it just once, and I can remember thinking yes, this is exactly how I feel -- how did she capture it? It stayed with me long after I had forgotten the title, and the storyline, and the plot. I googled to see what book it had come from; quite coincidentally, my parents shipped it over with some other books of mine. At any rate, as a child/teen that felt bigger than her skin sometimes, and alternated between raging impotently and being overcome with curiosity and happiness at the world, this resonated. Still does to an extent now, but maybe not quite as much.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Susan

    This book makes me want to know Annie Dillard. The writer, sure, but I really want to know the person.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Connie

    Memoir I am glad I read her memoir before reading others of Annie's books. Though I would like to hear her tell about her life after her childhood and teen years, I feel as if I almost know her in person. Annie was born in 1945. Most of her young life was lived in Pittsburg with her two younger sisters and her intelligent, adventurous, jokester parents who provided what Annie needed for her explorations, explained science and reviewed history to her in details, but otherwise did not express Memoir I am glad I read her memoir before reading others of Annie's books. Though I would like to hear her tell about her life after her childhood and teen years, I feel as if I almost know her in person. Annie was born in 1945. Most of her young life was lived in Pittsburg with her two younger sisters and her intelligent, adventurous, jokester parents who provided what Annie needed for her explorations, explained science and reviewed history to her in details, but otherwise did not express interest in anything in Annie's world. She was curious, with a depth of memory, undivided focus, and broad interests - in books, the arts and sciences, and more. Her vocabulary and ability to articulate what she saw and felt made this a reading full of beautiful detail. She had her mother's heart for the underprivileged and victims of inequality. Reading this memoir has inspired me to not just know and appreciate the things and people around me, but to savor them in detail. Here are some quotes that describe Dillard's ability to draw pictures with words and reveal her heart: "The old cobblestones were pale humpy ovals like loaves. When you rode your bike over them, you vibrated all over. So could the streetcar's tracks . . . your handlebars twisted in your hands and threw you like a wrestler." "I wanted to notice everything, as Holmes had, and remember it all, as no one had before." "Knowing you are alive is feeling the planet buck under you, rear, kick, and try to throw you . . . It is like riding the planet like a log downstream . . . Have you noticed yet that you will die? . . . Then you feel your life as a weekend you cannot extend . . ." "Everywhere things snagged me. The visible world turned me curious to books; the books propelled me reeling back to the world." "I opened books like jars . . . I never knew where my next revelation was coming, but I knew it was coming . . ." "Nothing exhilarated me more than the idea of a life dedicated to a monumental worthwhile task.." " . . . So this was adolescence. . . . Why didn't I settle down, straighten out, shape up? . . . I thought that joy was a childish condition that had forever departed . . ."

  20. 5 out of 5

    Melody

    I tried to read Annie Dillard when I was in college, but I just didn't get it. Last summer I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek for the second time, and this time it made sense, not just intellectually- though it was intellectually gratifying-but this time somewhere in my soul. So I approached _An American Childhood_ with expectation, and I was not disappointed. Dillard manages to create a memoir at once both nostalgic and brutally honest, hazy but precise, idealized yet imperfect--as though this is I tried to read Annie Dillard when I was in college, but I just didn't get it. Last summer I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek for the second time, and this time it made sense, not just intellectually- though it was intellectually gratifying-but this time somewhere in my soul. So I approached _An American Childhood_ with expectation, and I was not disappointed. Dillard manages to create a memoir at once both nostalgic and brutally honest, hazy but precise, idealized yet imperfect--as though this is what it means to be American. I read the book slowly and languorously over a number of months, picking it up when I wanted to chew on experience or savor language. Dillard makes the daily activities of growing up--dancing in the living room, riding your bike around town, sitting bored in church--the stuff of dreams. In her memory, Pittsburgh brims with stifled possibility, and the angst of adolescence is just the condition of "the child of the 20th century." We are all of us Dillard, and none of us Dillard. With her, we want our rough edges "to cut a hole in the world's surface."

  21. 4 out of 5

    Leah

    There is so much to say, I cant say much at all. I can count on one hand the books and writers I have read that have provided me a profound and transformative experience. This is one of those books for me. Im grateful. I will read this again and again throughout my life. Its a thinking book, an intimate book of the heart and mind, best read slowly. There is so much to say, I can’t say much at all. I can count on one hand the books and writers I have read that have provided me a profound and transformative experience. This is one of those books for me. I’m grateful. I will read this again and again throughout my life. It’s a thinking book, an intimate book of the heart and mind, best read slowly.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Rebecca McNutt

    This book captures the steel town industrial look and rolling hills of Pittsburgh and the nostalgia of growing up with vibrancy and extremely well-written characters and scenery. I loved it, I'm glad I found a copy of it. :)

  23. 5 out of 5

    Shirley Showalter

    I wrote about this book in my blog this week: https://www.shirleyshowalter.com/lear...

  24. 5 out of 5

    Mehrsa

    This is my second Annie Dillard and I had the same two conflicting feelings reading both books: One is that some of the passages are just so beautiful. The other is that she seems to be putting on airs or showing off in writing instead of just communicating clearly. The book is about a certain kind of childhood in a bygone era. It's lovely and self-aware. She perfectly captures what she felt like as a child, but I really could not relate with any of it. I don't know if it's because my childhood This is my second Annie Dillard and I had the same two conflicting feelings reading both books: One is that some of the passages are just so beautiful. The other is that she seems to be putting on airs or showing off in writing instead of just communicating clearly. The book is about a certain kind of childhood in a bygone era. It's lovely and self-aware. She perfectly captures what she felt like as a child, but I really could not relate with any of it. I don't know if it's because my childhood was so drastically different or it's because she isn't going for connection, but more for display. Not sure.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Courtney Clark

    I expected a "good old days" vibe about how amazing childhood was BACK THEN. But really Annie Dillard managed to encompass what is universal while maintaining a truly personal narrative. This is a beautiful, and beautifully written book.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Emily

    This was a delightful read that brought back wonderful memories of living in Pittsburgh. It was a wonderful chance to get into Dillard's childhood head. I'd give it 3.75 if I could as it had some less captivating moments, but overall an enjoyable read.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Dan

    i like to think i'm old enough to no longer require brooding, existential "grittiness" from every object on my bookshelf. that said, i have real trouble believing anyone's childhood was idyllic as the world described in annie dillard's an american childhood. i loved the author's earlier pilgrim at tinker creek, which provided an acute, worm's-eye view of the natural world around us. pilgrim seemed to recognize the small-scale "otherness" of our physical surroundings - the way that leaves, insects i like to think i'm old enough to no longer require brooding, existential "grittiness" from every object on my bookshelf. that said, i have real trouble believing anyone's childhood was idyllic as the world described in annie dillard's an american childhood. i loved the author's earlier pilgrim at tinker creek, which provided an acute, worm's-eye view of the natural world around us. pilgrim seemed to recognize the small-scale "otherness" of our physical surroundings - the way that leaves, insects and foliage create an alternate universe alongside the world of normativity and convention. sadly, childhood deals with the latter world for the most part. and despite a few spirited moments from time to time, the book is motivated more by nostalgia than curiosity. if you grew up rich and white in the 1950's, you might find the nostalgia quite charming. dillard maintains an old school, post-new-deal optimism about innovation, social change and america itself that can be quite endearing. but her optimism is also an obstacle. consider, for example, her handling of race. throughout the memoir, we are introduced to a variety of african-americans that work around the dillards' bourgeois home. when they appear, it is almost always to draw attention to her mother's noble open-mindedness, or the author's fearless forays into a library "on the bad side of town," or whatever. there's a sanctimoniousness to all of this that is really tough to dismiss. and though dillard adds the occasional quip about the ignorance of her conservative relatives, the tone is self-congratulatory and her optimism seems more indicative of ignorance and self-absorption than the wonder of the world itself. i'm not the most optimistic person in the world, so there's certainly a chance that a resonant dimension of this book escaped me because i'm such a stick in the mud. certain passages are very well-written, though the chipper tone prevented me from enjoying most of them. this is certainly not the sort of book i would ever fault anyone for enjoying, but i found none of the wonder i had anticipated after reading pilgrim at tinker creek. instead, i spent most of the book rolling my eyes at the corniness.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Larry Bassett

    I loved Pilgrim many years ago, one of my lifetime favorite books. After reading An American Childhood I should go back and read Pilgrim again. You could open this book randomly to any page and likely find a great paragraph that by itself might make it worth reading the book. The "chapters" are short following chronologically Dillard's growing up year. I had not realized it before that she grew up a very priveleged family with private schools and full time mom with home help. I must admit that I loved Pilgrim many years ago, one of my lifetime favorite books. After reading An American Childhood I should go back and read Pilgrim again. You could open this book randomly to any page and likely find a great paragraph that by itself might make it worth reading the book. The "chapters" are short following chronologically Dillard's growing up year. I had not realized it before that she grew up a very priveleged family with private schools and full time mom with home help. I must admit that this does change my view of the author. She has a life free to explore and she does. Would it be fair to call her snooty? That's what we called the stuck up kids when I was growing up. As I was reading about this high class, high strung life, I was also thinking about the book Nickel and Dimed (Barbara Ehrenreich) and the low income world that book attempts to portray from the artificial work experiences of another priviledged person. "My days and nights were my own to plan and fill," says Dillard. Disregarding my negative judgments about the life of Dillard, her writing captures me. The concept of the idyllic childhood is both glimpsed and rejected. "Was it all, the whole bright and various planet, where I had been so ardent about finding myself alive, only a passion peculiar to children, that I would outgrow even against my will?" I think Dillard was successful in her goal of chronicaling childhood, at least her own. "Somebody had to do it, somebody had to hang onto the days with teeth and fists, or the whole show had been in vain. That it was impossible never entered my reckoning." Dillard does subscribe to the American Dream. "Hard work bore fruit. That is what we learned growing up in Pittsburgh, growing up in the United States." Ehrenreich in Nickel and Dimed might make a different claim.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Mike

    I was hooked from the very first sentence: "When everything else has gone from my brainthe President's name, the state capitals, the neighborhoods where I lived, and then my own name and what it was on earth I sought, and then at length the faces of my friends, and finally the faces of my familywhen all this has dissolved, what will be left, I believe, is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that." And how could she not think that, having grown up in Pittsburgh, the city I was hooked from the very first sentence: "When everything else has gone from my brain—the President's name, the state capitals, the neighborhoods where I lived, and then my own name and what it was on earth I sought, and then at length the faces of my friends, and finally the faces of my family—when all this has dissolved, what will be left, I believe, is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that." And how could she not think that, having grown up in Pittsburgh, the city carved into place by the confluence of three rivers? Here you'll find a father so taken with Twain's Life on the Mississippi that he orchestrates his own solo boat trip down the Ohio from Pittsburgh to the Mississippi down to New Orleans; a mother prone to testing her children's wits by handing over wrong phone calls to her daughters and saying, "It's for you"; and a childhood brimming with curiosity and desire for knowledge that would test the mettle of any kid today. Dillard writes of drawing the topography of her baseball mitt, of the refuge she found in her local library and the many books housed there that probably aren't getting downloaded to e-readers (The Field Book of Ponds and Streams), of being chased for blocks by a stranger after she and another child pelted his car with a snowball, of a failed attempt to derail a trolley, of her amateurish forays into detective work and the mountains of paperwork accumulated in the course of such work, of her investigations of insects, and far too many other hijinks to record here. You're better off reading it and living this other childhood from Pittsburgh in the 1950s.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Nathanial

    Okay, Dillard, show us what you got. She bluffs, she holds, she raises the stakes. I love her broad scope and her precise portraits. Also, her self-consciousness is crucial in this - her narrator doesn't take herself too seriously as she addresses serious topics like race prejudice, class discrimination, and religious intolerance. However, Dillard's own limitations remain irksome, even as she points towards them: on one page, she claims that "Every woman stayed alone in her house in those days, Okay, Dillard, show us what you got. She bluffs, she holds, she raises the stakes. I love her broad scope and her precise portraits. Also, her self-consciousness is crucial in this - her narrator doesn't take herself too seriously as she addresses serious topics like race prejudice, class discrimination, and religious intolerance. However, Dillard's own limitations remain irksome, even as she points towards them: on one page, she claims that "Every woman stayed alone in her house in those days, like a coin in a safe," which, while it may be a marvelous metaphor, also sets itself up to disappoint, as on the very next page: "In the back room, where our maid, Margaret Butler, was ironing..." Okay, at least she gave the maid a name, but did it have to be Butler? And if it did, can Dillard justify it with a story about her ancestors, and why they have that name - or are we supposed to assume that she knows this story, and expects us to be smart enough to know it, too? Her facile assertion of "every" woman's condition doesn't lend itself to faith in her ability to subtlize sub-text. But still, I'm hooked, at least for her voice, and generosity with gesture, wit, and incidence - although I could go without the gratuitous glamorization of the gutsy, downtrodden Irish girl down the street. Either Dillard sets us up for a bait-and-switch, or she's putting her heart on her sleeve: bold, but risky...will it pay off?

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