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My image of Annie Dillard forever changed in 1977 when I met her for the first time. Acquainted with her only through her writing, I expected to find either a fey, neurotic poet like Emily Dickinson or a gaunt mystic like Simone Weil. We had arranged to meet in her office, which I envisioned as a one-room cabin tucked in a grove of Douglas firs.
The office turned out to be a garish institutional cell in a low-rise classroom building, with not a single decoration adorning the walls-one of which was painted orange and one blue-and nary a book on the shelves. Dillard herself, barely 30 years old, wore blue jeans and an embroidered shirt. She loved Ping-Pong and softball and dancing. She reveled in a good joke. Neither Dickinsonian nor professorial, she was rather the kind of person you'd put first on your guest list to liven up a dinner party.
Dillard too, it seems, had expectations. "I'm so glad it's you," she said when I entered her room. "I didn't know what to expect from a magazine called Christianity Today. When I saw a 60-year-old, bald man walking across campus, I thought, 'Uh oh, what have I agreed to?' " At the time I was half the bald man's age, and my abundant hair stuck out like a Brillo pad; what she had agreed to was a lengthy interview for that magazine.
Although Annie and I have met only one time since, we have kept up an occasional correspondence, and I have followed her work closely. No, make that fanatically. She is a guiding light for writers who still care about words, sentences, and paragraphs, and a singular beacon for writers of faith who labor in an alien, secular culture.
An American Childhood, published in 1987, sketches some of the details of Annie Dillard's life. She grew up in an upper-middle-class home in Pittsburgh, where loving parents indulged her in the comfortable rituals of private girls' schools and the country club. They talked ideas at the dinner table, took Annie to an upper-crust Presbyterian church, and gave her intellectual curiosity ...