Moments of revelation are a common phenomenon; you meet your future significant other, you see people you love come and go, you watch milestones unfold, and each moment seems to hang in a suspend state of permanence and transience.
The same such revelatory moment occurred when I first read Joan Didion’s work.
I remember lying in the lounge of my last flat, strewn across an incredibly uncomfortable couch, of which the bottom was falling out and our attempts to rebuild the base using old cushions and pillows had only marginally saved it from complete disaster. I had issued several books from the public library; I was unemployed, or imminently so, and had decided to undergo a comprehensive range of reading to circumvent the inevitable employment-related depression.
I have probably picked up the name Joan Didion as an important author to read from a writer friend, or through Gilmore Girls (my unashamed source of many pop/high cultural knowledge). I found her in the city library and selected my favourite of her covers. It was an old hardback and the plastic that had been wrapped around the dust jacket had yellowed with age. It was a 1970s cover: Play It as It Lays: A Novel by Joan Didion, the front cover read. The title was positioned towards the top, and was set against a pink background with a sunburst. The rest of the cover had a white background with a black, almost geometric, snake coiled into a spiral in the middle of the cover.
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As I lay on the couch, with the plastic cover creaking between my fingers, the old smell of library books filling my nostrils, I felt an immense shift within. I read the story of a floating woman, whose life of ornament had severed her realities between how she existed as a person, and within her mind. The descriptions of affairs, of abortions, and of suicide, were gripping and unsettling. The story traces the mental collapse of the central character, which was a powerful thing to read as I faced my own version of a collapse.
There seemed to be a cellular change, and I knew I had to have more. I tracked down her collection of essays Slouching Towards Bethlehem; after a simple peek into the collection resulted in reading a whole essay, I decided, for whatever reason, to ration it. I didn’t want to destroy the sensation of having read her different works for the first time—I didn’t want to rush my first time, any of them. I still haven’t finished this collection.
Joan Didion is a novelist, memoirist, scriptwriter, and essayist. Her writing is razor precise and compact. Her writing has been described to possess “Unsentimental precision and compactness”. Taking her lessons from writers such as Ernest Hemingway and Henry James, in their sparse and meticulous use of language, she saw the importance of the sentence.
She started her career writing for Vogue in the 1950s, the position a prize for an essay competition in her final year of university. The shift from university to Vogue was “so profoundly unnatural”; however, she quickly became senior feature editor. While there, she wrote her first novel Run River, her first collection of essays, her second novel, and then met her husband, and moved to California.
Joan Didion, however, is one of those writers. I’m pained by the cliché; she has probably inspired most writers to be writers. Despite this, I remain unable to find a reason to eschew my adoration. Quotes from her work fill pages upon pages of Tumblr, and so, too, do images of her—she has a cultish following.
This year saw Joan Didion become the face for French fashion brand Celine. In her usual black over-sized glasses, and chic bob, Didion seems to embody effortless elegance as well as intelligence. But as critics lampoon her for succumbing to the advertising machine, I consider it a testament to her particular brand of womanhood.
As an author she cultivated her image. Her covers often featured her picture; often she was in some very Californian car, or smoking, or wearing very large, black sunglasses. Images are part and parcel with her sense of womanhood, something that was very settling to learn from such a wise and inspiring author. Sartorial precision is exacted as she details her essentials when packing, in an essay in her collection The White Album—a collection for which I have just won an auction online.
Joan Didion is essential reading for everyone in early adult life, and her importance doesn’t diminish as you age. A harrowing two-part series of memoirs outline the loss of both her husband, and then her daughter. Her observations are eternally universal, and profound in their lack of sentimentality. Rather it’s her earnest and honest emotional realities that slip into your core.
Joan Didion’s Bangers
Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)
Play It as It Lays (1970)
The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)