Reading in An American Childhood: An Unparalelled Influence
In her memoir, An American Childhood, Annie Dillard conveys to her readers her deep love of reading. For Dillard, reading and the pursuit of knowledge are what make the world go round. Dillard even states that she reached the point where, she was now believing books more than I believed what I saw and heard (183). Dillards love for reading is demonstrated time and time again. It would be a difficult task for her readers to find a section that has not been influenced directly or indirectly by reading. Dillards father, Frank Doak, was also obsessed with reading, especially with Mark Twains Life on the Mississippi. He even quit his job and traveled down the Allegheny River on a six-week odyssey in search of the Dixieland jazz he loved so dearly. By analyzing the impact books had on her and her family, her experiences at the Homewood Library, and other books that captivated Dillards interest, we can see that in Dillard's case, it may well be impossible to identify another influence that comes close to the power of books.
Books make the man, announced the blue bookplate that Dillards father had on all of his books (8). This bookplate in itself provides a glimpse as to the impact that books and reading have on Dillards family. Dillard states that her parents were avid readers; her mother spent much of her time reading Time Magazine, while her father was buried in Mark Twain's ruminations on the Mississippi River. Her fathers adventure down the Mississippi River is a perfect example of the influence that a single literary work can have. Dillard tells us, There were dozens of copies of Life on the Mississippi on the living-room shelves (6). He eventually left his home in Pittsburgh to follow his dream of piloting a boat down the great Mississippi River. When he departed, he left his wife and three daughters that were ten and seven, as well as a sixth-month-old baby girl. Frank Doak sold the boat and flew home six months later. The reasons for this early departure included his wife's challenges with the children, and her admission that people were starting to talk(10). This last challenge Frank Doak could not bear. As for Dillard, her life was completed by the comforting presence that books offered. Books allowed her to open doorways into the imagination and let her experience other lives:
I was a skilled bombardier. I could run a submarine with one hand, and evade torpedoes, depth charges, and mines. I could disembowel a soldier with a bayonet, survive under a tarp in a lifeboat, and parachute behind enemy lines. I could contact the Resistance with my high-school French and eavesdrop on the Germans with my high-school German . . . . (180)
Dillard exemplifies that
The world of books is a childs
Land of enchantment.
When you open a book and start reading
you enter another worldthe world
of make-believewhere anything can happen. (179)
She obtained these books mostly from the Homewood Library, the closest branch to her home.
This Library was in a Negro section of townHomewood. It is here where she began reading books to delirium (80). This is the location where Dillard spent many hours and read some of her favorite books. What Dillard sought in books was imagination (183). She found it. Every time she opened a new book, her imagination was kick started and she would place herself into the story that she had just read. Dillard states that the influence that books held over her grew to the point where books became her life. She recalls, I began by vanishing from the known world into the passive abyss of reading, but soon found myself engaged with surprising vigor because the things in the books, or even the things surrounding the books, roused me from my stupor (80). It was here in the bottom shelf of the Natural History section of the Homewood Library that she found The Field Book of Ponds and Streams, one of the books that ultimately influenced her the most.
So many books had an impact on Dillard that it would be quite difficult to list them all. However, a few particularly influenced Dillard, which include The Natural Way to Draw, The Field Book of Ponds and Streams, and The Diary of a Young Girl. Reading The Natural Way to Draw fueled her thirst for knowledge and taught her many techniques in the art of drawing, as well as a new way to see the world around her. She even resigned herself to attending architecture school, but she eventually abandoned these plans because she disliked buildings, considering them only a stiffer and more ample form of clothing, and no more important (80). Dillard moved onward, with her next conquest being The Field Book of Ponds and Streams. This book not only gave her a fascination for rocks which led Dillard down a path of her own scientific discovery, but it also gave her a sense of community. This new feeling of camaraderie came when she noticed that other people had also checked out the same book. From this point forward, Dillard would read the book every year, and sometimes she would just go to the Homewood Library and study the books card. She would then let her imagination run wild and think about who else checked out this book, dreaming of possible ways to contact those other readers.
In reflecting on her choice of genre, Dillard states that she had been driven into nonfiction against my wishes. I wanted to read fiction, but I had learned to be cautious about it. Anything can happen, and Dillard saw fiction as a bomb or land mine you wanted to go off (83). Unfortunately, fiction never seemed to appease her appetite. She made her foray into nonfiction with a multitude of books; one in particular Dillard states, We read, above all, and over and over, for we were young, Anne Franks The Diary of a Young Girl (178). Dillard did not stop here, but continued reading various works about the Second World War, as well as The French and Indian War, which had been to her a purely literary event (183). Dillards interest in this conflict may be due to her living in Pittsburgh. The French and Indian War had skirmishes in the very woods near her Pittsburgh home and the surrounding land. All of these books, as well as the others that were not mentioned, helped to shape the development of Dillard.
Annie Dillards memoir leaves a deep impression of what reading meant to her. Her life is a great example of the potential influence reading can have: Books swept me away, one after the other, this way and that; I made endless vows according to their lights, for I believed them, she admits (85). She has also proven just how much it is possible to learn from reading. She states that for her, The boundary of knowledge receded, as you poked about in books (107). Dillards passion for reading is repeatedly made evident. It is not hard to see all of the places in which reading has affected her. It can be gleaned that for Dillard, books also make the woman. An American Childhood traces the impact books had on Annie Dillard and members of her family and the community. Dillard's memoir testifies that books may well have been the single strongest influence in this young girl's development.