Monday, May 21, 2012

An American Childhood

Many moons ago I moved in with a girl who I didn't know and who ended up becoming one of those awesome friends-for-life that you value a great deal. I remember her telling me many times that she really liked Annie Dillard's An American Childhood and she probably also told me that I should read it. I distinctly recall standing in various bookstores around the country, holding a copy in my hand, but never giving in and actually buying it. Then, this month, one of the girl's in my local book club picked it. Happiness! I was finally forced to read it and the reason I was most happy to do so was because of my former roommate. (I mean, I also liked the girl who picked the book also! ha!)

I embarked upon An American Childhood having no clue what it was about. The title says it all. The book is about Dillard's childhood, growing up in America. It is a collection of stories which she recalls from her younger days. The book really could have been written by any one of us, I suppose. Not knowing Dillard at all, I frequently wondered why I was supposed to care about the scrapes and mischief she got into as a girl. The general consensus amongst the book clubbers was that we weren't sure what the relevance was and why we were supposed to engage with this book. We all felt that we would be infinitely entertained by reading or hearing about stories of people that we personally know, but that reading a stranger's recollections about ordinary, familiar things wasn't as thrilling. (Actually, the most enjoyable part of the book club's discussion was swapping personal stories about our own childhood.)

That said, the girl who led the discussion pointed out that Dillard does have a unique writing style which makes her worth the read. The leader this month had read Dillard's other books and said she preferred the others to this title. Her recommendation was to read Dillard's The Writing Life if you are new to this author. I'm considering doing so because I really did enjoy Dillard's style; I just didn't know why I was to care so for her particular childhood. Another thing to note about Dillard is that she won a Pulitzer Prize for her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

As mentioned, An American Childhood is a collection of stories from Dillard's younger days. She recalls various phobias, strange personality quirks of her parents, her own imaginations, etc. Despite the fact that I wasn't sure how to connect to her tales, I still find quite a few of them laugh-out-loud funny. Take this one for example:

Dillard described the irrational fear of nuns that she had when she was very young - perhaps five years old or so. Her mother decided it was time for her to get over her particular fear and so she walked her over to a group of nuns and asked them, "Would you just please say hello to my daughter here? If you could just let her see your faces."

"I saw the white, conical billboards they had as mock-up heads; I couldn't avoid seeing them, those white boards like pillories with circles cut out and some bunched human flesh pressed like raw pie crust into the holes. Like mushrooms and engines, they didn't have hands. There was only that disconnected saucerful of whitened human flesh at their tops. The rest, concealed by chassis of soft cloth over hard cloth, was cylinders, drive shafts, clean wiring, and wheels.
"Why hello," some of the top parts said distinctly. They teetered towards me. I was delivered to my enemies, and had no place to hide; I could only wail for my young life so unpityingly snuffed."

Dillard also talks a lot about her love for reading, which of course, any other reader can identify with:

"I had been driving into nonfiction against my wishes. I wanted to read fiction, but I had learned to be cautious about it.
"When you open a book," the sentimental library posters said, "anything can happen." This was so. A book of fiction was a bomb. It was a land mind you wanted to go off. You wanted it to blow your whole day. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of books were duds. They had been rusting out of everyone's way for so long that they no longer worked. There was no way to distinguish the duds from the live mines except to throw yourself at them headlong, one by one."

Dillard definitely had a clever way of wielding her pen. As the leader of our group discussion pointed out, it's not that she lived an extraordinary life. She was ordinary, like all of us. Yet, she saw the world in a very beautiful way and had a knack at describing life in an extraordinary manner.

All in all, I have to say that I enjoyed this book. I didn't love it; I was frequently bored by it. But for the friends who feel the connection, I would likely not pick this one up. I'm glad to have taken a pleasant-ish stroll outside my comfort zone this month. It was worth the journey just for the personal stories of others in the group.


B said...

Well, this sounds interesting. I can't say it will go to the top of my reading list, but I'll certainly put it on there :)

*carrie* said...

I've read a few of Dillard's books, but I did not finish this one. Eric and I were actually discussing her last night, and he said reading Dillard makes him feel dumb.

hopeinbrazil said...

My pastor quotes Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek now and then, which makes me think I might enjoy it. Like you, I thought An American Childhood was just okay.

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