Today is December 5th. Today is Joan Didion’s birthday.
She may be the icon of Wannabe Writer Girls the world over, but knowing this fact doesn’t dilute my deep appreciation for her work. Just last week, I was reading Blue Nights on the métro platform, waiting for a friend. When she finally arrived, and asked what I was reading, I struggled to come up with a condensed version without sounding like I was a suicide risk: “It’s about a woman struggling to come to terms with her daughter’s abrupt death? Oh, and this is on the coattails of her husband’s abrupt death…”
It’s pretty common knowledge that Joan Didion has become my patron saint since I plucked Slouching Towards Bethlehem off the shelf at Daunt Books in Marylebone in April 2015. I’d first encountered “Los Angeles Notebook” in my Nonfiction workshop during my Sophomore year of college.I’m not quite sure why she didn’t have an affect on me then. I read it, I felt, I set her aside in favor of the next assignment.Wandering through a London bookshop, I couldn’t put my finger on why, but buying her book of essays felt imperative. I turned to Joan whenever I felt like reading something short and immersive, and found myself rereading large chunks instead.
I’m sorry to say that I lost this copy to a man who, as it turned out, did not love me. I let him borrow it in an ill-advised attempt to give him another piece of myself. Suffice it to say, after giving up on each other, I felt that demanding he return it made me feel too petty—although, if I’m being honest, this decision was rooted in the fact that I’m still not sure how I’d feel if I were to see him. The easiest solution was simply to order another copy. Perhaps one day I’ll get mine back, and then I’ll have two.
While I love her other work as well, I keep coming back to this first book of essays. When I’m feeling a bit blue, I flip through and read an essay or two. Sometimes it’s easier to submerge my concerns under her crisp prose. Perhaps I identify with her as a fellow Californian—because she too lived in Palos Verdes for a spell. Perhaps it’s her complete control over her language on the page, or the way she describes writing as an “aggressive act.” She embraces minimalism like Hemingway, yet pulls emotions out of me like Fitzgerald. Certainly, she’s the first writer since Fitzgerald who has held me so completely spellbound, even prompting me to commit to the 752 page biography written by Tracy Daugherty.
I’ve gotten into the habit of reading in cafés—I find it easier to focus there without the siren song of the internet. I find myself turning to the person beside me, momentarily forgetting that the person beside me is a stranger, probably doesn’t speak English, and certainly doesn’t want to listen to me read passages of my book aloud. Asking me to choose my favorite of her lines is impossible—I’d have to retype a vast majority of her work which I’ve read.
Lately, I’ve been stuck on “Goodbye to All That,” perhaps because I’m nervously waiting for my next appointment at the préfecture to renew my carte de séjour. While I’m not ready to say goodbye to Paris, Joan’s meditations on New York have made me think about what it means to fall in love with a place:
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.
If that doesn’t make your heart ache in some inexplicable way, I’m not quite sure you’ve found your city yet. Or perhaps you prefer people to places, and are somewhat more socialized than I am these days.
And just because everyone needs a little more Joan in their lives, here are some interesting pieces on her life and work from LitHub, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, The Paris Review, Man Repeller, and The New Yorker for anyone inclined to indulge.
Three cheers to you, dear Joan, our troubadour of Southern Californian malaise!