Sometimes, when I read enough of an author’s work, my mind finds itself categorizing their style by a certain color — a certain feeling. Patti Smith‘s writing is black, for example, black like leather or velvet. Joan Didion is a certain kind of hazy pink and orange — a California sunrise, or a golden hour when everything looks a bit more beautiful and strange.
Didion is a household name, and not without reason. She is something of a literary goddess, and she’s got a repertoire of work and a life worth writing about to back it up. There’s a reason that Netflix made a documentary about her: her art lasts. Her way of looking at the world — of place, of self, of identity, and of detail — is what makes her writing so poignant. One of her most famous quotes is from 1979 her book, The White Album: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” and she shows us, sentence by sentence, how to tell these stories; how to live.
From essays to novels, here’s your guide to one of America’s most important writers.
Who She Is:
Born in California, Didion went to school at the University of Califonia, Berkeley, and then moved to New York City. She was a guest editor at Mademoiselle (yes, like the Sylvia Plath one), and then at Vogue. She’s a journalist who wrote as a magazine writer for over a decade, she’s a storyteller and a screenplay writer. I love this combination: who says that someone who worked for Vogue shouldn’t be able to write global novels with the depth that Didion can? In a 1978 interview with The Paris Review, Didon says of Henry James‘ writing: “I loved those novels so much that I was paralyzed by them for a long time. All those possibilities. All that perfectly reconciled style. It made me afraid to put words down.” Incidentally, that is how her writing makes me feel.
There are few writers who can do nonfiction with the force that Didion can. From essays to journalism to memoir, she’s got enough to keep your brain busy. Her ability to look at the world through a writer’s intentional, purposeful, observant eye is unparalleled, and all of her books deserve a spot on a bookshelf purely because they’re books you should own; they’re books you should come back to. Dive in as you wish, but I think there’s something to be said about reading these books in order. She is particularly good at capturing the feeling of a specific time and place, and it’s quite magical to trace that as you read.
If you’re interested in reading chronologically, go like this: Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), then The White Album (1979), both riveting and captivating collections of journalism. Next, open up Where I Was From (2003) for autobiography, then go to The Year Of Magical Thinking (2005), followed by Blue Nights, two deeply insightful memoir pieces about love and loss and time and the strangeness of it all. If you love it all and can’t get enough, finish up with South And West: From A Notebook (2017), literal pages from notebooks that’ll give you deeper looks into the books you’ve now finished but don’t want to end.
Run River is Didion’s first novel, and if you love her writing to take place in California, start here. It is, unsurprisingly, a captivating and haunting novel. Others by her include A Book Of Common Prayer (which takes place in Central America), Democracy (read if you like books that travel in setting, or love to have your mind blown by creative narration and form). My favorite of all is Play It As It Lays, which captures feeling and emotion unlike anything else I’ve read.
Didion wrote the screenplay for one of my favorite movies of all time, The Panic In Needle Park – it’s currently on Netflix and is definitely worth a watch. Also, if you haven’t seen Céline’s ad campaign that features her, you must)