I don’t read as much as I used to; I find that I have less time and it seems harder to find really good books. As a result of the latter, I tend to keep a few authors in rotation from whom I can expect great things. Joan Didion is on that short list.
I first became aware of Didion on a Sunday morning in September of 2003; I was working long hours at a demanding and stressful job, and I’d had so much on my mind that I failed to fall asleep at all on Saturday night. At about 5AM on Sunday I gave up, got dressed, and went out. I ended up buying a couple of donuts and a copy of the Sunday New York Times. I returned to my little apartment at the top of a 1920s apartment building and read the Times cover-to-cover. In the Book Review there was a review of Didion’s new book, Where I was From, a personal history and analysis of California. I read the review and was entranced. I remember looking at the photo of a frail looking Didion leaning on a table looking with intensity at the camera in her New York apartment. Something about the woman was deeply compelling.
And so began a decade of Didion. I think I’ve read almost everything she ever wrote. She became something of a cultural phenomenon shortly after my discovery upon the release of her best seller The Year of Magical Thinking, chronicling her reaction to the concurrent death of her husband and severe illness of her adult daughter, Quintana Roo.
Her writing is mesmerizing. Cyclical patterns create emphasis and mood. Sentences go down like clear water and yet, when you parse them, are extraordinarily complex. She employs technical prowess with a spare style, which seems so difficult to achieve.
But to me, Didion the person, the Didion Mystique, is also compelling. So much of her is revealed in her writing and various interviews she has given over the decades.
When she sold her home at Malibu and moved to a home in Brentwood, she sold her Corvette and bought a Volvo station wagon.
She has this superiority that does not grate. She can tell you indirectly that she thinks something is tacky without coming right out and saying so.
She drops names, such as the passage from her 1970s essay The White Album when Janis Joplin came to Didion’s home in Hollywood and asked for an unusual drink.
She is almost always photographed in enormous dark glasses. She seems to hide behind these glasses, a very petite, frail woman with gigantic glasses.
Apparently Gloria Steinem once instructed a reporter to “[a]sk her how come, if she spends all her time crying and swimming and struggling to open a car door, she finds the energy to write so much?”
Didion’s book Political Fictions described the politics of America in the 1990s, a time I lived through but was young enough to not fully understand. Reading Political Fictions made so many things clear to me; it was like someone lifting the veil on the undercurrents of my teenage years.
In another excerpt from The White Album, Didion shares her packing list for reporting trips:
“TO PACK AND WEAR:
2 jerseys or leotards
1 pullover sweater
2 pair shoes
nightgown, robe, slippers
toothbrush and paste
aspirin, prescriptions, Tampax
face cream, powder, baby oil
2 legal pads and pens
At the end of this list, she tells us in a few paragraphs how and why she carried these items (the throw for trunk-line flights without blankets and too-cold hotel rooms, typewriter to type up notes during layovers and other wait periods) and, in the end, notes that the one thing she did not pack was a watch and so never knew what time it was.
Didion’s writing has altered and fine-tuned my worldview, and I am deeply grateful to have discovered her work.