Essential Joan Didion Pieces to Read Now, Later, Forever
“Syntax and sensibility: Nobody wed them quite like Joan Didion,” says New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, in a profession of love to Joan and her unusually placed prepositional phrases.
Nobody does anything quite like Joan Didion. The way she almost unsentimentally audits death and memory. The way she waves a bony index finger, more knowing than yours. The way she, without judgment, sets the scene of a five-year-old named Susan on LSD in the height of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury hippie culture.
She’s fearless, she’s cool as hell, she’s thisbig and could paper-cut you to death page-by-page with any one of her masterpieces.
Where do you start with her repertoire? She’s done it all: fiction, essays, political commentaries, memoirs, journalistic pieces and just about everything in between. Joan, now 83, has never not been relevant, but she’s in the headlines again these days, as Netflix recently debuted the long-awaited Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, a documentary-slash-love-letter made by her nephew, Griffin Dunne. (Yes, son of Dominick Dunne, Hollywood legend.)
Have you cozied up and clicked play on The Center Will Not Hold already? Great. Either way, let’s use this occasion to revisit Joan the Great, or Our Mother of Sorrows, as Vanity Fair once begrudgingly called her.
Below are some of Joan’s essential readings, though really, every subject paired with a predicate strung together by Joan is essential. Whether you’re picking up The Year of Magical Thinking for the first time (what’s your address? I’ll send you tissues) or you’re paging through Slouching Towards Bethlehem again, scrounging for the meaning of life for the umpteenth time, happy reading.
The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)
Don’t lie down while reading The Year of Magical Thinking, or you’ll choke on your tears.
The title refers to the psychological and anthropological phrase – cross your fingers enough and you’ll avoid the inevitable – though it may as well been called The Year of Joan Didn’t Deserve or The Year You Wouldn’t Wish Upon the Devil, as it tiptoes along the time following the death of Joan’s husband, fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, which coincided with the hospitalization of her beloved daughter Quintana Roo. The seemingly small scenes make your heart hurt the most. Like when Joan, shortly after John’s death, stares into his closet, remarking that she can’t give his things away – what if John comes back for them? It’s raw, it’s brave, it’s beautiful. It’ll ruin you and wreck you and rebuild you.
The Year of Magical Thinking is a seminal book on grief and bereavement and it’s simply a must read for any thinking, feeling human being. No wonder it won the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for both the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Pulitzer Prize.
“Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”
“I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us. I also know that if we are to live ourselves there comes a point at which we must relinquish the dead, let them go, keep them dead.”
“We were not having any fun, he had recently begun pointing out. I would take exception (didn’t we do this, didn’t we do that) but I had also known what he meant. He meant doing things not because we were expected to do them or had always done them or should do them but because we wanted to do them. He meant wanting. He meant living.”
On Self-Respect (1961)
Joan first proved her astute skills in Vogue, in 1961, with the publishing of On Self-Respect (which you can also find in Slouching Towards Bethlehem). New to the Vogue staff, Joan was given the opportunity to write the essay after another writer assigned to the piece failed to follow through. The title was already placed as a headline on the cover, so Joan swept in and wrote her first major piece – elegant and critical and thoughtful – not only to an exact word count, to place into the layout, but to an exact character count. She’s been flexing her power, letter by letter, ever since.
Read it in full here.
“Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself.”
“Self-respect is something that our grandparents, whether or not they had it, knew all about. They had instilled in them, young, a certain discipline, the sense that one lives by doing things one does not particularly want to do, by putting fears and doubts to one side, by weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible, comforts.”
Goodbye to All That (1967)
Joan set the standard for “New York, I love you, but I must leave you” essays, now floating around every book and blog, with Goodbye to All That in 1967. I could list a dozen essays (I’ll spare you) that trample over the trope, the New York love affair gone wrong arc. Joan did it first. She wrote about her love/hate/love relationship with the city, how it gave her life and then took that life.
“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was.”
“I was in love with New York. I do not mean ‘love’ in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again.”
Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)
Perhaps Joan’s most renowned series of essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem now acts as a time capsule for a life and time many of us never lived yet sometimes dream about. With a few exceptions, most of the essays are set in California in the ’60s, giving a vivid vibe of life then+there – including mass murders, kidnapped heiresses and the explosion of American counterculture.
That five-year-old named Susan, the one on LSD? You’ll find her in the titular essay, a famous piece about the sex-and-drug-filled Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in the ’60s. Susan is the center of the disturbing passage, as well as the most chilling scene of The Center Will Not Hold. While discussing Goodbye, Joan – then a mother to a young girl herself – is asked what it was like to find the kindergartener high.
After a long pause, waving her arm about, she says simply, with a slight smile, “It was gold.” That’s the audacious Joan, the one who could immerse herself into any culture without judgment and the one who knows a journalistic goldmine when she finds it, the one we know, we love.
The entire book is a classic collection of journalism and includes a few of the essays mentioned above: Goodbye to All That and On Self-Respect. Perhaps my favorite piece though is On Keeping a Notebook. (At least today it is. Ask again tomorrow.)
“I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”
The White Album (1979)
If Slouching Towards Bethlehem didn’t earn Joan the title of California’s most prominent voice, her 1979 collection of essays, The White Album, did. The New York Times review of The White Album, after claiming “California belongs to Joan Didion,” just as Kilimanjaro belongs to Ernest Hemingway and Oxford, Mississippi belongs to William Faulkner, says, “Joan Didion’s California is a place defined not so much by what her unwavering eye observes, but by what her memory cannot let go.”
Her memories are worth a read.
“We tell ourselves stories in order to live…We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices.”
“I suppose everything had changed and nothing had.”
Play It As It Lays (1970)
Joan writes what she knows best, even when tackling fiction: the American west, angst, despair. This short but not-so-sweet novel tells the story of Maria and captures an intense mood of a teetering woman with just enough words, no more. I won’t give any more away.
“There was silence. Something real was happening: this was, as it were, her life. If she could keep that in mind she would be able to play it through, do the right thing, whatever that meant.”
“Everything goes. I am working very hard at not thinking about how everything goes.”
Blue Nights (2011)
Think of Blue Nights as The Year of Magical Thinking, Part II, the companion piece Joan never wanted to write. Before Magical Thinking was even published, Joan’s daughter Quintana Roo died at just 39 years old. Joan refused to amend it though, instead, writing an entire new ode to the new type of grief she felt – a mother’s grief, compounded by a wife’s grief. It touches on themes of parenthood, failure, adoption, and memory, as well as memory’s ultimate uselessness if you don’t appreciate the moment as it’s occurring.
Whatever sense Joan had made out of her life, she lost it alongside losing John and then Quintana, now living a mother’s nightmare. Did she protect Quintana enough? Pay enough attention to her? Did she love her enough?
Whereas Magical Thinking is a sharp and polished masterpiece, Blue Nights feels as if Joan has taken a beating. She has. She’s older now, baffled at the state of her life, too tired to attempt to make sense of the chaos. Yet she’s graceful as ever in her words. Read for yourself.
“This book is called ‘Blue Nights’ because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.”
“Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.”
“In theory mementos serve to bring back the moment. In fact they serve only to make clear how inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here. How inadequately I appreciated the moment when it was here is something else I could never afford to see.”
Additional readings, if you just can’t get enough:
- Insider Baseball (1988)
- Eye on the Prize (1992)
- The Teachings of Speaker Gingrich (1995)
- Fixed Opinions, or the Hinge of History (2003)
- Politics in the New Normal America (2004)
- The Case of Theresa Schiavo (2005)
- The Deferential Spirit (2013)
- California Notes (2016)
- Joan’s packing list from The White Album
- Joan’s favorite books of all time, delightfully hand-written
Images via Kate Worum.
Megan McCarty is a writer, editor, etc.-er who has written about life, love and – shh, don’t tell her mother – s-e-x for Garance Doré, Apartment 34, Rue and more. While based in Minneapolis, she’s always ready, willing and oh-so-eager to pack a bag, board a plane and wander new streets.