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Washington Post Book Club: An American Childhood

August Post Book Club Selection

Evelyn Small
Washington Post Book World Staff Writer
Thursday, August 26, 2004; 3:00 PM

Welcome to the online meeting of The Washington Post Book Club, a monthly program presented by the editors and writers of Washington Post Book World.

Post Book World staff writer Evelyn Small will be online Thursday, Aug. 26 at 3 p.m. ET to discuss this month's selection, 'An American Childhood' by Annie Dillard.

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Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

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Evelyn Small: Welcome to the Washington Post Book Club and thanks for joining me for our discussion of Annie Dillard's An American Childhood. Since Dillard is such a multi-talented writer -- novelist, poet, essayist, critic, naturalist -- we can touch on any of her books, but I chose this one because it might resonate in several directions for lots of you. So, anything goes....

Evelyn Small: I'm coming to you remotely (for me) from a family camp in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, where the incredibly blue sky beckons outside the window. I'm hoping that this computer connection holds throughout our chat, but bear with me and We'll get a discussion going. I hope others will feel free to comment on questions and answers.

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Lenexa, Kan.: Ms. Small: Reading Annie Dillard recalls Paul Engle's line: "Poets are like everybody else, only more so." Dillard experiences life the way most of us wish we did. Some examples (Your comments? Thanks much.) follow:

o On teenage boys in Pittsburgh: "They cruised the deb party circuit all over Pennsylvania, holding ever-younger girls up to the light like chocolates, to determine how rich their centers might be."

o On an open door in study hall: "...behind it, Pittsburgh's Nabisco plant...issued the smell of shortbread today; they were baking Lorna Doones...The heavy, edible scent of shortbread maddened me in my seat..." Annie begins to dream of throwing her Ellis School teachers into the Lorna Doone batter.

o On getting her driver's license: In her mother's old Dodge convertible "I drove onto boulevards, highways, beltways, freeways, and the turnpike. I could drive to Guatemala, drive to Alaska. Why, I asked myself, did I drive to--of all spots on earth--our garage?"

o On memory: "As a life's work, I would remember everything--everything...every dream...every scrap of overhead cloud. Who would remember Molly's (her little sister's) infancy if not me?...Somebody had to do it, somebody had to hang on...or the whole show had been in vain."

Evelyn Small: You've picked some of my favorite lines to quote. I found it difficult not to quote more (for space reasons) in making the presentation in Book World a few weeks ago. I loved the one about kicking her bike's kickstand up as she "sprang into the seat and away, in one skilled gesture like cowboys' mounting horse." And: "I began reading books to delirium. I began by vanishing from the known world into the passive abyss of reading." And way too many other favorites to quote here.
I think you've said it beautifully when you suggest that Dillard "experiences life the way most of us wish we did." Noel Perrin once wrote of her ( I think in a review of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek), "She continues to see beyond the visible." Someone else also wrote that she "understands her task to be that of full alertness." She seems to always have her powers and senses on full strength.

She once did a column on writing for the New York Times (at least 15 years ago), in which she wrote: "You were made and set here to give voice to your own astonishment. Write as if you were dying.... Examine all things intensely and relentlessly." She certainly does, and more power to her, say I.

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Lenexa, Kan.: You mentioned in your write-up that Dillard helped usher in the contemporary age of memoirs. In addition to Dillard, it's fun to recall the Book Club's other enjoyable selections (Russell Baker, Maxine Hong Kingston, Robert Graves). Amy Tan's novel was also close to being a memoir. Even two of the presenters (Marie Arana and Michael Dirda) have published well-received memoirs.

Do you see the movement running out of steam? Bill Clinton found his recent experience so rewarding, he hoped the rest of us--"even if it's only 25 pages"--might do so. Of course, he wasn't suggesting publication. Also, what's your opinion of Mary Karr's two memoirs? Thank you.

Evelyn Small: Hello, Lenaxa, and thanks for your question. I happen to be one of those people who loves memoirs. But I agree with former Book World deputy editor Chris Lehmann who, in reviewing William Maxwell's memoir-ish So Long See You Tomorrow, condemned the "kind of self-dramatizing sleuthing that has made the memoir more of a recovery workbook than a literary genre." The former are not so appealing as the latter. I think Mary Karr's first memoir -- The Liar's Club -- fell on the good side of this sliding scale, and I read it avidly. Less so the second one, at least for me. Michael Dirda's recent memoir, the lovely An Open Book, focused on his reading life, at least up to age 18, and again resonated in many ways in the way that Dillard's did, in her comments on her reading.
Are memoirs running out of steam? Not as long as their authors don't spend their time self-dramatizing and focusing on the "I" to the exclusion of observations about the world. Even if it's a personal world, these books can be written in such a way that they resonate and speak more universally.

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Washington, D.C.: I have not finished the book, but am amazed by her clear recollection of her thought processes as a young child. I have been trying to come up with some of my own. Have you heard whether she kept a diary?

Evelyn Small: You're right. She seems to have remembered so many things so clearly, but if you read a bit closer, you'll see that she's writing at a few pages length about only a few things -- the shadow that crossed through her bedroom terrifying her, that turned out to be car lights coming down the street, or the snowball throwing incident, or (one of the loveliest) the neighbor ice skating under the street lamp. Those are visual images any of us can see in our minds from our own childhoods. It's my understanding that she didn't keep a diary, but that she was always and ever observant and wrote at an early age, certainly in high school -- and she went off to college, emphasizing writing. She had actually intended something altogether different for this book. She wanted to write the history of Pittsburgh in a sense, the French and Indian war, and lots of other things, all about the steel town, and Carnegie and the influences on the area -- and apparently wrote quite a bit of that. Dillard told Charles Trueheart (in a profile he did of her in the Post at the time this book came out) that a friend of hers told her that she loved reading the manuscript, with all of its wonderfully weird stuff, but then "every once in a while John Cameron Swayze bursts in and writes all this dull stuff that was wrecking the book." She took all of that out and what was left became this lovely distillation of memory.

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Vienna, Va.: Wasn't there a movie made out of this book?

Evelyn Small: I know of no movie from this book. Anyone else out there know of one -- or what this poster might be thinking of?

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Evelyn Small: One other thing I wanted to mention in relation to the poster who asked about Dillard keeping a diary. I'm not sure that she would. She also once wrote the following: "One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play itm lost it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.... After Michaelangelo died, someone found in his studio a pice of paper on which he had written a note to his apprentice... 'Draw, Antonio, draw, draw and do not waste time.' "
I think this tells us something about she would feel about a diary. She was no doubt too busy writing.

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Lenexa, Kan.: Thank you for your nice (and thoughtful) responses. Over the years I think I've detected a possible Dillard influence on America's great film director Woody Allen:

From "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" (1974): "The sharks I saw are moving up and down the coast. If the sharks cease roving, if they still their twist and rest for a moment, they die. They need new water pushed into their gills; they need dance." Recall Woody Allen's "dead sharks" pronouncement of his romance with Annie Hall (1977 film).

Also from "Pilgrim": Dillard gives us Valerie Eliot's great story about her husband (T.S.), Bertrand Russell, and the London taxi driver. The driver told Eliot he once asked Lord Russell "What it was all about?" and "do you know, he couldn't tell me." (Valerie said her husband loved to tell the story.) Recall Jeff Daniels and Wallace Shawn's philosophical gloom ("No one ever knew what it was all about."/"Will they even remember us? It's not likely, you know") at the end of "Radio Days" (1987).

Evelyn Small: Interesting. I wouldn't have made that connection. It's also possible it might work in the other direction, because I think Woody Allen is a few years older than Dillard. But certainly they would appreciate each other. In college she was in an all-girl rock band of English majors (called the Virginia Woolfs) and she loves poets and people who are "fringy and irresponsible, half-nuts." No doubt they would have a few things to say to each other. Take a look at her web site (anniedillard.com) for more ammunition for your hypothesis. You'll see her title page: "The Secrets of the Universe as Decoded by the Unhinged."

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Washington, D.C.: I think a movie would ruin the book- I don't think I would go see it. So much of this book is lovely because you can see it through your own camera. I think Michael Dirda would agree based on his comments August 11.

Evelyn Small: Yes, I know what you mean. You're absolutely right about Michael agreeing. He's not a movie person, first and foremost, and several of his online book chats (Wednesdays at 3:00 p.m.) have touched on this concept of books being made into movies, with most posters agreeing that the best books often don't translate well to the big screen. I recall one exception that lots of people agree about is Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It.
For me, it would be difficult to actually see that neighbor girl ice-skating down a street, since I have such a perfect picture of it in my head. Especially when the actor is some known and all-too-identifiable quantity, I'm dismayed.

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Annandale, Va.: On page 11 of "An American Childhood", Dillard describes how "ten-year-olds wake up and find themselves here...surrounded by familiar people and objects...", I found this passage in particular very evocative, and moving...did others find that their childhoods, or memories were sort of reflected in Dillard's memories and analysis of growing up?

Evelyn Small: Interesting comment -- I'm going to move this through without replying so that others can comments as well. We can come back to this.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Ev, It seems that Annie Dillard's childhood was filled with so much time - time to read, and particularly to explore and roam around her world. We all know that the days of children being able to be so independent are gone, but I wonder what it means to the future of childhood memories/memoirs. While children today have expanded worlds (travel,TV,opportunities for learning), they also seem so scheduled, organized and with less opportunity to explore even their close-in world. What will a future writer's "American Childhood" reveal about growing up in this decade?

Evelyn Small: Yes, again, this is a good question for the wider group, but I can't help adding my own worry to this that, indeed, there are few parents in this country (as Dillard's mother was) who are willing to let their kids have the freedom of the streets as soon as they know their phone number. I think this is one of the reasons I love this book. It's also about a time that's gone and not likely to return, and she depicted it so vividly.

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New York, N.Y.: Do you think An American Childhood would be
the ultimate American Classic if Annie were a
man?

Evelyn Small: These are great questions. I find myself wanting to hear what everyone has to say about this. In the presentation, I noted Russell Baker's Growing Up as a classic memoir, and I think that each of these books -- and so many others (Welty's One Writer's Beginnings, Jill Ker Conway's The Road From Coorain) -- is a product of its author/observer and the life that he/she is recording and reminiscing about -- man or woman.

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Haddonfield, N.J.: In response to Annandale - absolutely. Her description of her efforts to fly aroused in me feelings I have not had in almost 40 years - and I loved it. The physical sensation of pure joy and discovery.

Evelyn Small: I too had underlined the sentence/section. (I had a lot of underlining in my book.) In fact, when I read this book when it first came out, I sent it to about ten of my friends, not so much because any of our childhoods was the same or even similar to Dillard's but because of provocative and evocative language that caused me to stop and think.

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Haddonfield, N.J.: The comment about Bill Clinton and everyone needing to write a memoir begs the question "For whom do people write memoirs?" I think it is obviously a cathartic exercise, but at what point do you come to the realization that others might want to read about your being caught throwing snowballs?

Evelyn Small: It's a good question: For whom do people write memoirs? As I mentioned, Dillard didn't necessarily set out to write a memoir in this case. She wrote that with her book "Encounters with Chinese Writers," she was trying to see if she could write about characters. And with An American Childhood, she was trying to see if she could tell stories. Maybe that's what some people are doing in writing down their memories, or just seeing how they remember things themselves.

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Lenexa, Kan.: I too wondered if anything had been filmed. My "Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of American Writers" usually shows significant films and had none for Dillard. I also tried to match titles in my "VideoHound" and didn't see anything.

Dillard made an interesting comment on death: "The strongest men and women who had ever lived had presumably tried to resist their own deaths, and now they were dead." For me, Sinatra was the test case. I kept thinking he would beat it.

Still, it does help when beloved poets like Eberhart and Kunitz (although he did tell Moyers "the flesh does grow weary") are still out there? Any thoughts on your own survivability? Thanks again.

Evelyn Small: I think that part of Dillard's message in all of her books and poems -- novel (The Living) included -- deal with living. Note the use of the word in a couple of her titles even (Living By Fiction, too). She wrote an essay in Harper's a few years ago where she talked about the dead always outnumbering the living, but then went on to ask -- again, as I think she does in her books -- how should we live. That's a question she prompts us to answer for ourselves.

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Alexandria, Virginia: I wonder if you consider this book a "women's book", or do you think it appeals equally to men and to women?

Evelyn Small: Although someone's sure to think this a sexist response, I do think this is a "woman's book." Certainly men have written about their childhoods lovingly and lyrically (as evidenced by the male authors a few of us mentioned). Unlike Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which no doubt has equal fans among men and women, I think women are more likely to be pulled to this book than men.

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Evelyn Small: Thanks for joining me today, especially on this August afternoon. Feel free to e-mail me with any others of your questions and comments. You can reach me at Smallev@washpost.com.

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