There is no one who writes about reading better than Annie Dillard. “I began reading books, reading books to delirium,” she writes in “An American Childhood,” first published in 1987. Writing about a specific book is easy — there are quotes to interrogate, plots to summarize, stylistic tendencies to pick apart. But the act of reading itself is much harder to explain. At their worst, essays about reading are trite, verging on pretentious. Good essays about reading expose it in all its contradiction: both intimate and public, solitary and expansive. The best essays about reading are not about reading at all.
“An American Childhood” chronicles Annie Dillard’s mid-century Pittsburgh upbringing. Dillard delicately renders this universe for us: The yellow ridges of her mother’s hand resting on a table, a flat black sky after a snowfall, a dirt-caked coin discovered in an alley. These fragments build a tangible — if necessarily incomplete — portrait of Dillard’s early life.
Dillard begins “An American Childhood”: “When everything else has gone from my brain — the President’s name, the state capitals, the neighborhood where I lived and then my own name and what it was on earth I sought, and then at length the faces of my friends, and finally the faces of my family — when all this has dissolved, what will be left, I believe is topography: The dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that.”
Topography, whether literal or imagined, is the filter through which Dillard’s life is lived and understood: “Walking was my project before reading,” she explains.
Walking and reading have remained Dillard’s projects long past childhood, providing her a constant entanglement in the sublime and friable muck of living. Just as exploring her neighborhood allowed Dillard to nudge outward the boundaries of her physical world, books became a keyhole to history and society, both of which were just beginning to reveal their clarity and riches to her.
“Books swept me away,” she explains, “one after the other, this way and that; I made endless vows according to their lights, for I believed them.” There is nothing passive in the way that Dillard describes reading. “A book of fiction was a bomb,” she declares. “It was a landmine you wanted to go off. You wanted it to blow your whole day.”
Dillard writes about books intermittently in “An American Childhood.” The narrative winds around the same central theme from many angles, books being just one means of illuminating her philosophy. She is a master at explicating her own credo. “Who could ever tire of this heart-stopping transition, of this breakthrough between seeing and knowing you see, between being and knowing you be?” Dillard says. “Who could tire of it when the sum of those moments on the edge — the conscious life we so dread losing — is all we have, the gift at the moment of opening it.”
In this chaotic daily maneuvering, books take on a special importance. “What I sought in books was imagination,” Dillard writes. “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.”
This stripped and tender account of reading knocks me out every single time. Annie Dillard was exactly what I needed in the rush of going back to school, when it’s hard to live mindfully and with purpose.
“There you could live,” she writes. What else are we doing when we read but looking for a place to live — a place to remind us we are alive, to entrance us with the flimsy, biting reminder that we are here, right here, just for now.