I first read Joan Didion when I was an editorial assistant at a big publishing house in Manhattan. Blue Valentine was the movie everyone in the bullpen was discussing, and I YouTubed Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams to see how their chemistry translated off-screen. Fortuitously, I came across a Nightline segment where Michelle discussed Heath Ledger’s death, and how she read Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking to help cope with his passing. “It didn’t seem unlikely to me that he could walk through a door or could appear from behind a bush,” she said in the interview. “It was a year of very magical thinking.”
I hadn’t yet known The Year of Magical Thinking was a memoir about the grief Didion endured after losing her husband, novelist John Gregory Dunne, nor did I know it had won her the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction. All I knew was the term “magical thinking” intrigued me; that in the midst of pain we believe the impossible is possible. I went to the Borders (RIP) by Madison Square Garden that night, and devoured the book in one sitting. Thus began my new life as a Didion fanboy.
I’m often asked why I love Joan Didion so much. My response is simple: I don’t read her essays, they read me. When I picture her in my mind, I see a bespectacled mercenary driving through an apocalyptic landscape in a white corvette, not in search of bounty, but of answers.
In celebration of her upcoming documentary, We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live, and the Didion biography The Last Love Song out later this month, we’ve compiled a list of the best nonfiction works to get into the work of Didion. Below are the top ten essays that have made us cry, think, and, above all else, believe.
“In The Realm of the Fisher King” (After Henry)
After Henry, originally published in 1992, is perhaps Didion’s most unsung collection. In it she shatters illusions constructed by the American media in the 80s, while simultaneously chronicling the political atmosphere across the nation. “The Realm of the Fisher King” gives a raw and personal look at the Regan years through the lens of Peggy Noonan, Regan’s speechwriter, and First Lady Nancy Regan.
What makes this essay interesting isn’t just that she compares the Regans to actors on set, but rather the inside look at their everyday life. For example, President Regan kept photos of families who wrote to him in his desk drawer and Mrs. Regan was shocked they had to pay for their own meals. This is a must read for historical buffs.
“On Self-Respect” (Slouching Towards Bethlehem)
Without a doubt, this is one of Didion’s most celebrated works and with good reason. In it she defines the parameters of self-respect, and preaches the importance of character. “People with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things.”
I first read this essay during a dark period in my life, when I thought none of my actions had consequences. Man, was I ever wrong. The price I paid was heavy, and when I decided to shape up, I kept a copy of the above quote in my wallet to remind myself never again to compromise my integrity.
Want a kick-ass Easter egg? Did you know the essay first appeared in the pages of Vogue back in 1961? Yup, Didion worked there after she won a competition in college. This essay is so legendary, it can be viewed on Vogue.com in its original format. Check it out!
Okay, I’m cheating a little here. Technically this next selection on our list is a book, not an essay. But hear me out. Miami began to change when many Cubans sought asylum in the Sunshine State back in the early 60s. Spanish-speaking households, quinceaneras, and salsa may all be common aspects of Miami’s culture today, but in the 1980s they weren’t. Miami is Didion’s analysis of the significant transformation Miami underwent.
As a Cuban-American myself, I struggled with some of Didion’s opinions in this book. In particular, she has a unique perspective about the Cuban exodus and its ramifications on Miami’s African-American community. It’s a tough read, but worth it.
“John Wayne: A Love Song” (Slouching Towards Bethlehem)
This is my favorite Joan Didion essay because she describes her loss of innocence. In this essay she describes the first time she saw John Wayne in the summer of 1943, when she was eight years old and watching a film called War of the Wildcats. This is an essay about coming to terms with your idol’s mortality. She, like many others, did not believe John Wayne could fall ill and die. And when it happened, it called into question everything she believed.
“The Women’s Movement” (The White Album)
Forty plus years later, this essay still inspires much debate. Joan Didion writing about the women’s movement may seem like pure fan service today, but in 1972 this was actually a contentious essay. Written in the early years of Second Wave feminism, “The Women’s Movement” quotes legendary feminist Shulamith Firestone (author of The Dialect of sex), takes a look at the transfiguration of women from gender to a “class”, and offers Didion’s insight on Marxism.
Much like Miami, Didion will surprise you with her point of view. It also kicks off with one of her best metaphors: “To make an omelette you need not only those broken eggs but someone “oppressed” to beat them.”
“A Girl of the Golden West” (After Henry)
Fitting in with the overarching theme of After Henry, Didion is relentless in her quest to deconstruct media figures in order to render them human. “A Girl of the Golden West” is a close examination of Patty Hearst, and takes a look at her kidnapping and subsequent induction into the urban guerrilla group, the Symbionese Liberation Army. Didion tries to rectify the images of Hearst that were shown to the American public: of Hearst in her first communion dress and then as an adult in an FBI wanted flyer.
It’s hard to deny that Didion wasn’t dazzled by early Hollywood. The title of this essay is inspired by the 1938 movie of the same name in which the main heroine, Mary Robbins, falls in love with a bandit.
“The White Album” (The White Album)
The titular essay of the 1979 collection is a lyrical odyssey through the stormy waters of Didion’s life in the 60s. It begins with her meeting Jim Morrison during a recording session for The Doors. As Didion writes, “The curious aspect of Morrison’s arrival was this: no one acknowledged it.” She eventually dives into her personal life, specifically about her brief institutionalization at a mental hospital as well as her fears regarding the Manson Family murders (she knew Sharon Tate).
What Didion does so masterfully in this essay is capture the paranoia of that time. If you haven’t read this essay, I suggest you do so ASAP. It’s not only a literary triumph, but also a gritty glimpse into a dystopian America.
“On Keeping a Notebook” (Slouching Towards Bethlehem)
This one almost fell off the list had my amazing editor (shout out Gina) not reminded me of it. This is basically a mantra all writers should read. As the title suggests, Didion examines the reasons why she keeps a notebook. Her reasons are less about documenting, and more about discovering how she feels about certain subjects.
“Our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.’”
“After Life” (The Year of Magical Thinking)
Didion’s most heartbreaking work to date. “After Life” is the first five chapters of The Year of M
agical Thinking, and appeared in the New York Times on September 2005, a month before the landmark memoir was published. Warning, have a box of tissues by your side. Didion takes no prisoners in documenting the shock of losing her husband: ““Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”
The book was adapted into a Broadway play starring Vanessa Redgrave as Joan Didion. However the story was revised to include the death of Didion’s daughter, Quintana, which happened during her book tour for The Year of Magical Thinking. Didion would later write about Quintana’s death in her last memoir, Blue Nights.
“Goodbye to All That” (Slouching Towards Bethlehem)
As if any Didion fan needs an introduction to this one. This, ladies and gentlemen, is most people’s gateway to Didion. In “Goodbye to All That” she writes about her love affair with New York City and how it came to an end. The story first appeared appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, and would later be anthologized in her 1968 essay collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Just to refresh your memory on how awesome this essay is:
“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.”
This essay is extra special because the incomparable Diane Keaton narrates the audiobook for Slouching Towards Bethlehem, and does an amazing job in bringing this epic narrative to life (as if you had any doubt that she would).
[Image via iStock]