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An American Childhood

3.91  ·  Rating details ·  8,953 ratings  ·  848 reviews
A book that instantly captured the hearts of readers across the country, An American Childhood is Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Dillard's poignant, vivid memoir of growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s. ...more
Paperback, 255 pages
Published October 15th 2013 by Harper Perennial (first published September 1st 1987)
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Average rating 3.91  · 
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 ·  8,953 ratings  ·  848 reviews

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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 gr
Dec 02, 2013 rated it liked it
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 ...more
Bentley ★
Jan 08, 2016 rated it did not like it
Shelves: assigned-reads
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 headach ...more
Jan 05, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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 m
Apr 30, 2013 rated it really liked it
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, ...more
Jul 24, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: memoirs
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 Dill
Nov 09, 2009 rated it liked it
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
Michael Canoeist
Dec 20, 2011 rated it did not like it
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
Jan 19, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: book-group
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 Gil
Jul 19, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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,
Dec 01, 2016 rated it it was amazing
"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 q
Feb 09, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is an American childhood, if your family owned American Standard and had so much money that your father could throw over his job and decide he was going to boat down the Ohio River to New Orleans. However, Ms. Dillard isn't talking about her family's wealth - at least not centrally. She's mostly interested in describing the development of her mind.

As a young child she immerses herself in nature and books. Her mother takes her to the nearest branch of the Pittsburgh Public library which happ
Aug 23, 2016 rated it it was ok
Shelves: school-books
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 ...more
Mya Burns
Dec 30, 2015 rated it did not like it
Shelves: didn-t-finish
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. ...more
Oct 11, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: americana, memoir
Will every Annie Dillard book I read just be a desperate hoping that it’ll feel like Pilgrim at Tinker Creek again? I’m afraid so.

I loved some parts of this, and was very disappointed in others. Some of it just connected so strongly - not that I could relate personally, having grown up decades later, in a different socioeconomic class and with a much more dysfunctional family than hers, but in a region not far or dissimilar. But I mean connect more so in what it made me remember or think about m
I thought I'd read some of Dillard's works, but no. While she's a great writer, there's lots and lots of details. Good if it's a subject that interests you, but not so much if it's not.

I grew up in a suburb of Pittsburgh 15 years after Dillard, but we were worlds apart. Who was this child who read WWII books, could bike miles around, went to weekly art and dance classes and had not a single chore to do? When I was 10, I was doing dishes, weeding and picking strawberries for sale, hemming clothe
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 memor ...more
Sep 17, 2018 rated it liked it
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, sh
Annie Monson
Dec 22, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: literature, 2020, memoir
Gorgeously written and unbelievably observant. Funny, too. Some memoirs are like watching a great film, this one is more like flipping through a photo album with a witty and insightful commentator.

She shares snips of snappy anecdotes which lead to halting speculations on what it all might mean. I guess she’s rather an interpreter than a storyteller.

There is much to be said about finding an author you’d like to be friends with. Nice to meet you, Annie!
May 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Excellent. I think anyone who is curious and bookish would love Annie Dillard.
Mar 14, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Jun 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book makes me want to know Annie Dillard. The writer, sure, but I really want to know the person.
Sep 29, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 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 intere
May 10, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: memoir
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 wh
Mar 11, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: read-in-2018
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.
Shirley Showalter
Feb 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I wrote about this book in my blog this week: ...more
Sep 21, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Apr 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
If I could give this book more than five stars I would. Some of my favorite writing ever. About a place, a family, an experience of reading and learning and discovering aliveness. And yet not really a plot. How can it be about so much and not have a plot? Laughed out loud, wondered, and grew.
Feb 14, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audiobooks, memoir
I loved the way Dillard describes her reading as subversive, drawing her into a wider world.
Courtney Clark
Aug 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2018
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. ...more
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Annie Dillard (born April 30, 1945) is an American author, best known for her narrative prose in both fiction and non-fiction. She has published works of poetry, essays, prose, and literary criticism, as well as two novels and one memoir. Her 1974 work Pilgrim at Tinker Creek won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction. Dillard taught for 21 years in the English department of Wesleyan Unive ...more

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