An American Childhood

by

Annie Dillard

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Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) Character Analysis

While Annie Dillard (the narrator and author of the book) and young Annie Doak, the book’s protagonist, are the same person, it’s important to note that there is a clear difference between their presences on the page. “Annie Doak” is the character who grows up and changes over the course of the memoir, and “Annie Dillard” (her married last name) is the person writing the memories of her childhood in Pittsburgh, from her early years until she left for college at eighteen. Dillard is often critical of (or at least willing to poke fun at) her earlier self. She describes her childhood self as very precocious, fascinated by books, the arts, and science, but also energetic and lively, interested in sports as much as literature. She is curious and eager to learn, but she can also be self-absorbed and limited in her knowledge, as well as unmindful of other people’s feelings. Her intelligence and learning become quite impressive over time, although other people in her family sometimes think of her as a know-it-all. Dillard looks back at her earlier self with both sympathy and skepticism, understanding how little she actually did understand at the time, even while marveling at her own curiosity and ambition.

Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) Quotes in An American Childhood

The An American Childhood quotes below are all either spoken by Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) or refer to Annie Dillard (Annie Doak). For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
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). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Harper & Row edition of An American Childhood published in 1989.
Prologue Quotes

Like any child, I slid into myself perfectly fitted, as a diver meets her reflection in a pool. Her fingertips enter the fingertips on the water, her wrists slide up her arms. The diver wraps herself in her reflection wholly, sealing it at the toes, and wears it as she climbs rising from the pool, and ever after.

Related Characters: Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) (speaker)
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:
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Part One Quotes

Who could ever tire of this heart-stopping transition, of this breakthrough shift between seeing and knowing you see, between being and knowing you be? It drives you to a life of concentration, it does, a life in which effort draws you down so very deep that when you surface you twist up exhilarated with a yelp and a gasp.

Related Characters: Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) (speaker)
Page Number: 17
Explanation and Analysis:
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The interior life is often stupid. Its egoism blinds it and deafens it; its imagination spins out ignorant tales, fascinated. It fancies that the western wind blows on the Self, and leaves fall at the feet of the Self for a reason, and people are watching. A mind risks real ignorance for the sometimes paltry prize of an imagination enriched. The trick of reason is to get the imagination to seize the actual world—if only from time to time.

Related Characters: Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) (speaker)
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:
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These are the few, floating scenes from early childhood, from before time and understanding pinned events down to the fixed and coherent world. Soon the remembered scenes would grow in vividness and depth, as like any child I elaborated a picture of the place, and as my feelings met actual people, and as the interesting things of the world engaged my loose mind like a gear, and set it in forward motion.

Related Characters: Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) (speaker)
Page Number: 35
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Walking was my project before reading. The text I read was the town; the book I made up was a map.

Related Characters: Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) (speaker)
Page Number: 44
Explanation and Analysis:
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Part Two Quotes

We children lived and breathed our history—our Pittsburgh history, so crucial to the country's story and so typical of it as well—without knowing or believing any of it. For how can anyone know or believe stories she dreamed in her sleep, information for which and to which she feels herself to be in no way responsible? A child is asleep. Her private life unwinds inside her skin and skull; only as she sheds childhood, first one decade and then another, can she locate the actual, historical stream, see the setting of her dreaming private life—the nation, the city, the neighborhood, the house where the family lives—as an actual project under way, a project living people willed, and made well or failed, and are still making, herself among them.

Related Characters: Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) (speaker)
Page Number: 74
Explanation and Analysis:
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And, similarly, things themselves possessed no fixed and intrinsic amount of interest; instead things were interesting as long as you had attention to give them.

Related Characters: Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) (speaker)
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:
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They must have known, those little boys, that they would inherit corporate Pittsburgh, as indeed they have. They must have known that it was theirs by rights as boys, a real world, about which they had best start becoming informed. And they must have known, too, as Pittsburgh Presbyterian boys, that they could only just barely steal a few hours now, a few years now, to kid around, to dribble basketballs and explode firecrackers, before they were due to make a down payment on a suitable house.

Related Characters: Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) (speaker)
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:
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There was joy in concentration, and the world afforded an inexhaustible wealth of projects to concentrate on. There was joy in effort, and the world resisted effort to just the right degree, and yielded to it at last. People cut Mount Rushmore into faces; they chipped here and there for years. People slowed the spread of yellow fever; they sprayed the Isthmus of Panama puddle by puddle. Effort alone I loved.

Related Characters: Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) (speaker)
Page Number: 107
Explanation and Analysis:
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I wanted to notice everything, as Holmes had, and remember it all, as no one had before.

Related Characters: Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) (speaker)
Page Number: 130
Explanation and Analysis:
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I had essentially been handed my own life. In subsequent years my parents would praise my drawings and poems, and supply me with books, art supplies, and sports equipment, and listen to my troubles and enthusiasms, and supervise my hours, and discuss and inform, but they would not get involved with my detective work, nor hear about my reading, nor inquire about my homework or term papers or exams, nor visit the salamanders I caught, nor listen to me play the piano, nor attend my field hockey games, nor fuss over my insect collection with me, or my poetry collection or stamp collection or rock collection. My days and nights were my own to plan and fill.

Related Characters: Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) (speaker), Mother, Father (Frank Doak)
Page Number: 149
Explanation and Analysis:
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I knew what I was doing at Paw Paw: I was beginning the lifelong task of tuning my own gauges. I was there to brace myself for leaving. I was having my childhood. But I was haunting it as well, practically reading it, and preventing it. How much noticing could I permit myself without driving myself round the bend?

Related Characters: Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) (speaker)
Page Number: 155
Explanation and Analysis:
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At school I saw a searing sight. It turned me to books; it turned me to jelly; it turned me much later, I suppose, into an early version of a runaway, a scapegrace. It was only a freshly hatched Polyphemus moth crippled because its mason jar was too small.

Related Characters: Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) (speaker)
Related Symbols: Polyphemus Moth
Page Number: 160
Explanation and Analysis:
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What were my friends reading? We did not then talk about books; our reading was private, and constant, like the interior life itself.

Related Characters: Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) (speaker)
Page Number: 178
Explanation and Analysis:
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I was now believing books more than I believed what I saw and heard. I was reading books about the actual, historical, moral world—in which somehow I felt I was not living.

Related Characters: Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) (speaker)
Page Number: 183
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I left Pittsburgh before I had a grain of sense. Who IS my neighbor? I never learned what those strangers around me had known and felt in their lives—those lithe, sarcastic boys in the balcony, those expensive men and women in the pews below—but it was more than I knew, after all.

Related Characters: Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) (speaker)
Page Number: 199
Explanation and Analysis:
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Part Three Quotes

Scientists, it seemed to me as I read the labels on display cases (bivalves, univalves; ungulates, lagomorphs), were collectors and sorters, as I had been. They noticed the things that engaged the curious mind: the way the world develops and divides, colony and polyp, population and tissue, ridge and crystal. Artists, for their part, noticed the things that engaged the mind's private and idiosyncratic interior, that area where the life of the senses mingles with the life of the spirit: the shattering of light into color, and the way it shades off round a bend.

Related Characters: Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) (speaker)
Page Number: 213
Explanation and Analysis:
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I was growing and thinning, as if pulled. I was getting angry, as if pushed. I morally disapproved most things in North America, and blamed my innocent parents for them. My feelings deepened and lingered. The swift moods of early childhood—each formed by and suited to its occasion—vanished. Now feelings lasted so long they left stains. They arose from nowhere, like winds or waves, and battered at me or engulfed me.

Related Characters: Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) (speaker), Mother, Father (Frank Doak)
Page Number: 222
Explanation and Analysis:
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It galled me that adults, as a class, approved the writing and memorization of poetry. Wasn’t poetry secret and subversive?

Related Characters: Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) (speaker)
Page Number: 236
Explanation and Analysis:
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Epilogue Quotes

The setting of our urgent lives is an intricate maze whose blind corridors we learn one by one—village street, ocean vessel, forested slope—without remembering how or why they connect in space.

Related Characters: Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) (speaker)
Page Number: 247
Explanation and Analysis:
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For it 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.

Related Characters: Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) (speaker)
Related Symbols: Awakening
Page Number: 248-249
Explanation and Analysis:
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Get the entire An American Childhood LitChart as a printable PDF.
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Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) Character Timeline in An American Childhood

The timeline below shows where the character Annie Dillard (Annie Doak) appears in An American Childhood. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Prologue
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Annie Dillard, the author and narrator who is recording her memories from almost forty years before,... (full context)
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Dillard recounts the legend that, centuries earlier, a squirrel could run from one end of Pennsylvania... (full context)
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In 1955, when Annie was ten, her father, an executive in the family firm of American Standard, was inspired... (full context)
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When Annie’s parents met, Frank Doak was an only child, a lapsed Presbyterian, and a Republican, with... (full context)
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The morning Annie was reading Kidnapped, her father wandered through the house listening to jazz and snapping his... (full context)
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At ten years old, Dillard relates, children “wake up” in medias res to discover that they already know the neighborhood,... (full context)
Part One
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Dillard begins her story at five years old, in 1950. She describes the silence of her... (full context)
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Annie recalls asking herself if she was living while gazing outside the window and sinking into... (full context)
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Annie wandered outside, where her mother told her to lie on her back and try to... (full context)
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Dillard notes that the “interior life” is often blinded by self-centeredness, by its imagining that the... (full context)
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In 1950, Annie recalls, she had trouble going to bed because “something” would come into her room and... (full context)
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Learning this was memorable in its own right: it showed Annie the process of reasoning. She solved the puzzle by comparing the noise of daytime cars... (full context)
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Annie realized that she could yield to a fictional tale or learn to reason: each night... (full context)
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Another object of Annie’s fascination was the limp, coarse skin of her parents and grandparents and their friends. Children’s... (full context)
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Sometimes, while Annie’s mother was napping, Annie would touch her mother’s smooth, fair face to see how flexible... (full context)
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Dillard says that, even though her parents seemed old to her, they were still young, and... (full context)
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Annie remembered the beautiful, strange sight of Jo Ann Sheehy skating on the street during the... (full context)
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The night Annie saw Jo Ann Sheehy skating, they were having dinner in the dining room, the only... (full context)
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Annie continued, for a long time, to think of this night as emblematic of the contrast... (full context)
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Annie knew that the Catholic schoolchildren had to fill their workbooks with “gibberish” that they had... (full context)
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One day that spring, Annie waited and watched the St. Bede’s students leaving school, followed by a black army of... (full context)
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Dillard describes how these preceding scenes float without much coherence; soon they would grow more vivid... (full context)
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As Dillard grew, her understanding of things expanded; for instance, she began to know her mother as... (full context)
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Mother would wake up Annie and Amy by racing into their room and opening the windows to say “It smells... (full context)
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Once Annie found a dime in the alley while she was digging under a poplar. She showed... (full context)
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Dillard concludes, “That’s all”: there were only a few thoughts repeated over and over in her... (full context)
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Annie spent a lot of time walking around the streets, memorizing her neighborhood, and exploring on... (full context)
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For many years Annie roamed Frick Park, watching people lawn bowling and bird-watching. In summer and fall she imagined... (full context)
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Before Annie’s preferred hobby was reading, it was walking. The town was like her text, and “the... (full context)
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Annie soon learned to play football with the boys, developing the ability to throw herself on... (full context)
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...to catch his breath, before saying, “You stupid kids.” They listened to his lecture, but Annie felt a sense of glory: at this point there was nothing he could really do... (full context)
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Dillard moves on to talking about her parents’ penchant for explaining jokes to her, jokes of... (full context)
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On special occasions Annie’s parents would trot out a complex, intricate comedy routine they called “Archibald a Soulbroke,” which... (full context)
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Dillard moves on to discussing her father’s parents, with whom Amy and she dined each Friday... (full context)
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Oma told Annie that, as a teenager, she’d sewed rows of lace on her shirt to make her... (full context)
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...Cicero. Mary Burinda was thin, lighthearted; she’d lived with them for 24 years, and told Annie that her entire family had died during the 1918 flu epidemic. She had a crucifix... (full context)
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Annie could see Lake Erie from her bedroom window, watching the waves each morning when she... (full context)
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Annie sensed a rivalry between her mother and Oma. Mother had won morally, condemning Oma’s racism,... (full context)
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When Annie was eight, her family moved from Edgerton Avenue to Richland Lane on the far side... (full context)
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Back in Pittsburgh, Annie resumed swimming at the country-club pool, a comedown from the freedom at the lake. At... (full context)
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One Saturday morning before Annie started at a new private school, she sat on the porch reading Kidnapped (this was... (full context)
Part Two
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Dillard compares Pittsburgh to Rome; it’s a palimpsest, now a new clean city (prompted by postwar... (full context)
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Annie lived and breathed her Pittsburgh history, such a part of the country’s history, without really... (full context)
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Annie and other children played outside among the big stone monuments of the Pittsburgh millionaire industrialists.... (full context)
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“We” knew, Dillard says, bits and pieces of Pittsburgh history. There was small industry there before big industry,... (full context)
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Annie began to draw in earnest while her father was boating down the river. At a... (full context)
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In addition, Annie began reading in earnest. She traveled to the Homewood branch of the Carnegie Library, the... (full context)
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Annie thought about writing a letter to the author, asking how she might find a pond... (full context)
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Annie had been driven from fiction to nonfiction, frustrated by her inability to know in advance... (full context)
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Annie was at a loss for how to choose among the thick stacks of fiction. She... (full context)
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Annie felt that the Homewood Library part of her life, with its infinite books, was private... (full context)
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Dillard describes how a person’s interior life expands and thickens: she wakes up one day to... (full context)
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Annie started dancing school, which was attended by girls at her regular school, and boys from... (full context)
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Annie’s friend would whisper about a boy she found cute each week: Annie would think of... (full context)
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Annie was mystified to discover that all the dancing school girls were on a “list,” one... (full context)
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...awe as they called each other names and slugged each other on the shoulder. Now Dillard reflects how little she understood them. She thought they were all alike, but she now... (full context)
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Dillard reflects that the boys must have known they would inherit “corporate” Pittsburgh, their right as... (full context)
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Annie considered Amy the world’s most beautiful child. She was smart, quiet, and obedient. She dramatized... (full context)
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Around this time Annie spent many afternoons practicing pitching against the back wall of the garage, lost in concentration.... (full context)
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...had a friend, Tibby, whose older brother Ricky began playing a two-handed baseball game with Annie, basically throwing the ball back and forth and calling it as a “ball” or “strike.”... (full context)
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One afternoon a tornado hit Annie’s neighborhood, breaking all the windows in the envelope factory on Penn Avenue. Annie roamed around... (full context)
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...grass sprouted: they were as topographically diverse as Pittsburgh itself. Switching to the second person, Dillard recalls riding her bike over these sidewalks and vibrating all over. The streetcars were hung... (full context)
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Once Annie tried to “kill” a streetcar with her friend Pin Ford: they hid across the street,... (full context)
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Dillard thinks about the “inexpressible joy” of children as they realize the extent of the world’s... (full context)
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Dillard recalls running down Penn Avenue, imagining she might use up her store of joy by... (full context)
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Mother often played games with words, telling Annie to spell “poinsettia” and “sherbet,” to remind her that there were things she didn’t know.... (full context)
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Annie was, around this time, obsessed with the French and Indian War. She was impressed by... (full context)
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Dillard reflects that parents have little idea that their children, in their bedrooms, are reading in... (full context)
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At school, Annie memorized a poem about the Indian children that used to play where they now live.... (full context)
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Annie had drawn her baseball mitt in the attic bedroom, which was a studio, office, fort,... (full context)
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Annie was suspicious of the Homewood Library librarian, who, the week before, had given her (in... (full context)
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Like Holmes, Annie wanted to notice everything. She missed the house on Edgerton Avenue and worried about beginning... (full context)
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Fragmented words, in turn, also rattled around Annie’s head: phrases from the Bible, from the Gospels mainly. She and Amy went to Presbyterian... (full context)
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If the adults had actually read the Bible, Annie thought, they would have hidden it, recognizing its danger and opposition to their serious world... (full context)
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Dillard moves on to the subject of her rock collection, which began as a gift from... (full context)
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Finally, Annie identified the rocks as bauxite, barite, obsidian, and chalcopyrite, among others. She learned from her... (full context)
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Annie wasn’t nearly as moved by the story of the movement of the earth’s crust, but... (full context)
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“Rockhounds” were, Annie learned, the moniker for the amateur rock enthusiasts whose obsession went beyond wealth—these books advised... (full context)
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Annie learned how one could find fossil oysters and clams turned to agate in Puget Sound,... (full context)
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Annie was thrilled to receive a microscope kit for Christmas that year. It included an array... (full context)
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Annie realized, as a result of her parents’ indifference, that passions must remain private. Her parents... (full context)
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Dillard compares the feeling of being alive to shedding your dusty clothes and standing under a... (full context)
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Annie’s friend Judy Schoyer, a thin, shy girl with curly hair she often forgot to comb,... (full context)
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Annie loved Judy and was impressed at how much more comfortable she was at Paw Paw,... (full context)
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Dillard argues that children know bewilderment but not wonder: they treat the world around them as... (full context)
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At thirteen, though, the world was coming to seem marvelous to Annie. She began to lose her sense that the whole world was a backdrop to her... (full context)
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Soon, though, Annie would become invaded by a blind rage. She would gaze with hatred out the car... (full context)
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Annie imagined there must be fans of every cranny of knowledge, from birdwatchers to violin makers... (full context)
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One sight that particularly struck Annie, at school, was a newborn Polyphemus moth, crippled because its mason jar was too small.... (full context)
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For awhile, Gene Stratton Porter’s Moths of the Limberlost was Annie’s favorite book. Porter had been a curious kid in the wilderness of Indiana. Once Annie... (full context)
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Annie continued reading about beetles, wasps, and caterpillars. She collected them in jars, but was frustrated:... (full context)
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Annie went from an interest in medicine and microbes to a biography of Louis Pasteur, who... (full context)
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Right in Pittsburgh, Annie had seen the polio epidemic crushed. The University of Pittsburgh had created a controversial vaccine... (full context)
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Annie was learning that all things could be solved with hard work. Old, dirty Pittsburgh air... (full context)
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Annie had little idea of the malice and greed in the world. She thought that she’d... (full context)
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The year that Annie got a microscope and traveled to Paw Paw was also the year her grandfather died.... (full context)
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Annie’s family had bought Oma’s house, high on a hilly street: nowhere higher up to go... (full context)
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The new theme of Annie’s reading was the Second World War, a popular topic for teenagers her age, who read... (full context)
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Annie imagined running a submarine and parachuting enemy lines, using her high-school French and German to... (full context)
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In the basement of Annie’s house was a room with tables and chairs, a couch, fridge, sink, piano, and record... (full context)
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Annie wasn’t sure why adults approved of children who read, when the reading was so subversive.... (full context)
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Annie noticed the boys beginning to change, gaining knowledge of Cicero’s opinions or the Battle of... (full context)
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...country-club subscription dances. It was the same boys and same girls who showed up, and Annie wondered how the hosts knew. They dined on shrimp cocktails, the few adults along the... (full context)
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Annie noticed one blond boarding-school boy who was wearing patent-leather pumps with satin bows, and learned... (full context)
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On Sunday morning, Mother asked Annie how the dance was and she barely remembered: the morning made it seem like another... (full context)
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...stone monument, carved with keys, pelicans, and anchors, decorated with a mosaic of Christ, that Annie now noticed in a moment of boredom. She imagined the war between the boys and... (full context)
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Annie’s parents didn’t go to church and she “almost” admired them for it. They dropped the... (full context)
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Annie glanced at the boys and, to her shock, saw that it seemed like they were... (full context)
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Years earlier, before Father sold his boat, he used to take Annie out on the Allegheny River. They stopped to swim at islands, tying up at Nine-Mile... (full context)
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Now, nine years later, Father picked Annie and Amy up from church and, back home in the kitchen, began to explain American... (full context)
Part Three
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Dillard reflects that Pittsburgh was, in fact, a great town to grow up in as a... (full context)
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Annie went to the gallery again and again to see Giacometti’s sculpture, a wiry, thin person,... (full context)
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Annie read hoping to learn everything and to be able to combine her father’s logical mind... (full context)
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Annie awakened again into a new stage of life, the speed and excitement of high-school life.... (full context)
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Now Dillard imagines that there is something beautiful about living and dying where you were born, like... (full context)
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Annie also knew Oma’s world, but that was changing, now that Annie was working in the... (full context)
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Annie would bird-watch in the Fort Lauderdale park nearby, catching sight of the rare smooth-billed anis... (full context)
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At sixteen, Annie felt set on a new path, feeling drawn down a long tunnel like the turnpike... (full context)
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For most of her life Annie had felt unselfconscious, curious and directed to the outside world. Now she couldn’t shed her... (full context)
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Annie soon quit the church by writing a strongly worded letter to the minister. Father came... (full context)
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It was now May and baseball season, a year into the wild feelings Annie couldn’t rid herself of. She drove around all of Pittsburgh, asking herself why she was... (full context)
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Annie was fascinated these days by the French Symbolist poets, some of whom went insane; she... (full context)
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Annie had started to get into trouble: she’d been in a drag race the previous September,... (full context)
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Annie’s parents grounded her for the school suspension, and Amy began visiting her in her room.... (full context)
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Annie moved on from the French Symbolists to the British war poets, and started reading Asian... (full context)
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One afternoon, at Judy Schoyer’s house, Annie saw a book called On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, from the first century... (full context)
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Annie read linguistics and all of Freud’s works that spring, reading greedily and without snobbery. She... (full context)
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One one of these spring mornings, Annie was called into the headmistress’s office to hear what one of her teachers, Madame Owens,... (full context)
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Annie drew all morning in class, sometimes with intent but sometimes doodling at random. She also... (full context)
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The fall of her senior year, Annie recalled the smell of the Nabisco plant baking sweet white bread wafting across the field... (full context)
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Annie knew she was going to Hollins College in Virginia, where the headmistress had gone. The... (full context)
Epilogue
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Dillard notes that a dream is not much more than its setting: someone is climbing into... (full context)
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Dillard describes one setting, of a car trip into the mountains in September. The mountain curves... (full context)
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Dillard moves from the impersonal “you” back to the first person to admit that she does... (full context)
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Dillard compares the many different places the reader might be reading this book with the setting... (full context)
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Dillard briefly characterizes her childhood: Pittsburgh in the 1950s, in a household of comedians, a childhood... (full context)
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...all because businessmen realized all at once that paper money was only paper. Of course, Annie thought, as her father explained it to her. She describes other things that “meant” America,... (full context)
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They danced a lot in Annie’s house, and Father always reminded the children of a line in Jack Kerouac’s On the... (full context)