An American Childhood

by Annie Dillard

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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.

Dillard analyzes her “interior life” throughout the memoir, especially how it develops as she ages. In this quotation, she explains the important moment in her “interior life,” when she realizes she can use reason to oppose her wild and vivid imagination. As a young child, Dillard is petrified by what she believes to be a monster in her bedroom, but upon realizing that the “monster” is the light from a car outside on the street, she discovers that she can use reason in addition to imagination.

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. The boundary of knowledge receded, as you poked about in books, like Lake Erie’s rim as you climbed its cliffs. And each area of knowledge disclosed another, and another. Knowledge wasn’t a body, or a tree, but instead air, or space, or being—whatever pervaded, whatever never ended and fitted into the smallest cracks and the widest space between stars.

As Dillard matures and “wakes up” to the world around her, she no longer sees it as the backdrop to her life; everywhere she looks, there is always more to be studied, researched, and discovered. The world is an inexhaustible source of entertainment and excitement that she pursues through reading. When she is bored by her “exterior life,” Dillard escapes into her studies and reading to make life interesting. 

What I sought in books was imagination. It was depth, depth of thought and feeling; some sort of extreme of subject matter; some nearness to death; some call to courage. I myself was getting wild; I wanted wildness, originality, genius, rapture, hope. I wanted strength, not tea parties. What I sought in books was a world whose surfaces, whose people and events and days lived, actually matched the exaltation of the interior life. There you could live.

Those of us who read carried around with us like martyrs a secret knowledge, a secret joy and a secret hope: There is a life worth living where history is still taking place; there are ideas worth dying for, and circumstances where courage is still prized.

Throughout her childhood, Dillard’s “interior life” is extremely important to her, and as the introspective child that she is, she tends to spend a great deal of time in her mind. Her interior life is what makes life exciting, and she seeks books that reflect eras and places where people’s real lives are as thrilling as her interior one. These books lead her to the realization that her life doesn’t have to be mundane—and she becomes reluctant to accept the stereotypical suburban life she is expected to live.

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