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An American Childhood Paperback – October 15, 2013

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Editorial Reviews Review

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."

From Publishers Weekly

Dillard's luminous prose painlessly captures the pain of growing up in this wonderful evocation of childhood. Her memoir is partly a hymn to Pittsburgh, where orange streetcars ran on Penn Avenue in 1953 when she was eight, and where the Pirates were always in the cellar. Dillard's mother, an unstoppable force, had energies too vast for the bridge games and household chores that stymied her. Her father made low-budget horror movies, loved Dixieland jazz, told endless jokes and sight-gags and took lonesome river trips down to New Orleans to get away. From this slightly odd couple, Dillard (Teaching a Stone to Talk acquired her love of nature and taut sensitivity. The events of childhood often loom larger than life; the magic of Dillard's writing is that she sets down typical childhood happenings with their original immediacy and force.
Copyright 1987 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 255 pages
  • Publisher: Harper & Row Publishers; 1st Perennial Library Ed edition (1989)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060915188
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060915186
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.6 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (117 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #12,865 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Annie Dillard is the author of ten books, including the Pulitzer Prize-winner Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, as well as An American Childhood, The Living, and Mornings Like This. She is a member of the Academy of Arts and Letters and has received fellowship grants from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Born in 1945 in Pittsburgh, Dillard attended Hollins College in Virginia. After living for five years in the Pacific Northwest, she returned to the East Coast, where she lives with her family.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

40 of 42 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on March 10, 2001
Format: Paperback
The first time I read An American Childhood I was so thrilled I wanted everyone I knew to read it too. It is one of the handful of books that I will keep on the bookshelf by my bed for the rest of my life. (That shelf also includes Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.)
An American Childhood was an eye opener for me and gave me pause to look back at my own childhood to see what I could see. I reread this periodically and enjoy the clarity with which Ms. Dillard writes about her memories of the start of life, the beginning of thought, the thrill of realizations when first made, and the excitement of knowing that life is ahead and it's up to the one who is living to get on with it. She sets up a scene and relates her feelings as she was living through it. A vivid memory for her is running with a friend through the backyards of her neighborhood chased by a man who was furious with them for thowing snowballs at his car. "It was an immense discovery, pounding into my hot head with every sliding, joyous step, that this ordinary adult evidently knew what I thought only children who trained at football knew: that you have to fling yourself at what you're doing, you have to point yourself, forget yourself, aim, dive." She seems to have learned lessons early that it takes many of us several decades to internalize.
One day she ran down a busy sidewalk, arms flailing, pretending to herself she might just be able to take off into flight. "I was too aware to do this, and had done it anyway. What could touch me now? For what were the people on Penn Avenue to me, or what was I to myself, really, but a witness to any boldness I could muster...
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25 of 25 people found the following review helpful By on September 28, 1999
Format: Paperback
If you want to think about life and appreciate its nuances, then this is a book you will enjoy. If you're looking for a page turning, plot driven beach-read, this isn't for you. This book is so rich in vividness and thoughtfulness that I can't read a lot at one time. I read a chapter or two or three and then put it down and ruminate for a couple of days (while reading something a lighter). Sometimes the life in these pages seems more vivid than the one I am leading. Here is a girl discovering, with passion, what it is to be alive. And, here is a book that can remind you what that discovery felt like and put a bit of it back in your life.
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46 of 50 people found the following review helpful By Cipriano on May 5, 2002
Format: Paperback
The furiously curious Annie Dillard! From her very earliest years she has a profound awareness of the mystery of life, nothing is without wonder, everything worthy of further scientific investigation. She HAS (she POSESSES) what Abraham Maslow called a "freshness of appreciation" meaning not only that nothing escapes her notice, but also that she tends to find some positive result out of all of her experiences. I find this to be an enviable trait.
The book, her childhood, takes place in Pittsburgh in the 1950's. She is afforded much freedom and affluence in her somewhat eccentric and hilarious family (her mother didn't like the taste of stamps, so she didn't lick stamps; she licked the corner of the envelope instead). Dillard wonderfully paints a picture of a world that is charged with wonder, and gives us a sense that this electrified world is not just hers, but also the world of the reader.
Her writing is best when describing her great love of nature. I could swear I HEARD the following sentence... "The waves disintegrated on the big beach; from the high cliff where our house stood, their breaking sounded like poured raw rice."
It's true that one has to be patient with Dillard's disconnected vignettes... there are diversions that seem to bust up the chronology of events, but overall, the book is great in that it makes the reader feel that perhaps they too have never lived an insignificant day.
She says: " is not you or I that is important, neither what sort we might be nor how we came to be each where we are. What is important is anyone's coming awake and discovering a place, finding in full orbit a spinning globe one can lean over, catch, and jump on. What is important is the moment of opening a life and feeling it touch - with an electric hiss and cry - this speckled mineral sphere, our present world."
She seems to be saying that there is a glory in the mundane.
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31 of 35 people found the following review helpful By James R. Mccall on January 4, 2001
Format: Paperback
These are sketches of the author's early life, until age 16 or so, that achieve a unity more by the enrichment of themes than by a strict chronology.
[on boys] "... Their breathtaking lack of subtlety in every particular, we thought -- and then sometimes a gleam of consciousness in their eyes, as surprising as if you'd caught a complicit wink from a brick." (p90)
This is a fine book, to be read in a gulp (it's not long), or sipped over weeks, taking the chapters -- or very paragraphs -- as funny, fizzy little drinks of description or story. Her style is, in this book of urban reminiscence, still that of the nature writer, that intoxicating blend of the particular and general, close observation and little riffs on the meaning of it all.
Her milieu was of the working well-off; her father ran the successful family business and they lived in a Pittsburg that still was in the shadow of the Carnegies and Mellons. They had a housekeeper and a pretty, energetic mother. Annie and her sister attended dancing school and country-club functions, and collided with the boys in her "set", from whom she was expected to find her future husband. But she also played ball until it was too dark to see, and went compulsively to the woods to watch and to wonder. She collected rocks, and she read and read.
Annie Doakes was born the same year I was, but is both older than me, having lived at greater speed, and younger, having, I think, maintained more youthful enthusiasm. What is essential in this life story is its total focus on the years of childhood. Most biography skimps this, perhaps planting a few useful images of the wide-open ranchland, or the repressive parents, or the early bereavement that later can do explanatory duty. Each person is a mystery, of course, but I feel I know Annie Dillard, at least somewhat, after reading the adult describe the child. After all, we must believe that the child we were is where the adult we are came from.
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