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What to read: Joan Didion


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While you should read everything written by Joan Didion, if you’re not sure where to start here are a few tips.

Joan Didion is undeniably the best writer to ever live. You may find they could debate this fact, however, living without appreciating Didion’s genius seems criminal. If it hasn’t already become obvious, Didion is, was, and always will be my favorite writer and I’d like to share exactly why that is.

1. Slouching Towards Bethlehem

In Didion’s most powerful collection of essays, we see the praise and criticism of the whirlwind that was the 1960s. Published in 1968 Didion captures the heart of the 60s and plays the role of a storyteller but also a journalist all in one book. While she immersed herself in hippie culture, she allowed America the opportunity to perceive itself through a psychedelic and psychic lens. With words dripping in both bewilderment but also an undefined understanding. Didion will make you want to either throw on some bell bottoms and tie-dye shirts or watch a documentary about tie-dye and bell-bottoms.

This book reads like fine wine; it only gets better with every indulgence. Didion’s essay ‘On self Respect’ (originally written for vogue) has transformed my life at least three or four times, and with each read the words are somehow even more applicable. This is a book you pick up casually and then end up sitting on the subway and realizing that humankind has suffered from the same problems since the 60s.

2. Play It As It Lays

This novella reinforces that age-old trope of characters named Maria being tragic yet beautifully complicated. It also ensures I will never be naming my children Maria, just seems like bad luck. Within this novella, Maria is despised and loved, and very obviously a metaphor for the forced repression of female emotions. Didion uses the very genuine Hollywood culture she experienced as the wife of a director and manipulates it into becoming a tragedy about the forgotten women of Hollywood.

One of our first introductions to Maria is her receiving an extremely graphic abortion, which for many may be too intense. However, it truly allowed me to see the similarities between Maria and the modern-day woman, as we still struggle with the emotional, political, and physical difficulties of abortion. Before I read Play it as It Lays someone told me it was too depressing, then I realized that was kind of the whole point.

3. South And West: From a Notebook

I purchased this book from a small book shop on a random island in Greece and started reading it while laying in my college dorm room after failing a chemistry test. Now in many ways, that sequence of events perfectly encapsulates what this book entails. It’s a reflection on Didion’s 1970s road trip across the American south. She explores the darkness of beauty and the beauty within the darkness, leaving the book with a feeling of nostalgia for the life they read before perusing this book. It forces one to think critically about everything they encounter and grasp that life truly is a random series of events, one day you’re buying a book in Greece then in the very same week you’re failing an exam. Didion expresses how this book was never planned, in fact, it isn’t a book it’s a literal diary. As you read it there is an overwhelming feeling of oh shit I shouldn’t be reading this. The transition from diary to book allows us to further understand the randomness of life that Didion is trying to convey. If you’re looking for something short, South and West is for you, read it and weep my friends.

Didion Pro-tips

1. Don’t get too caught up in the details, make time to appreciate her whole message

2. If she makes jokes about death and loss just go with it, humor can be wretched!

3. Maybe bring a dictionary.

4. Best read on a beach or in a penthouse in an unusually large city.

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