Joan Didion, Patron Saint of the ’60s

We’re excited to announce that our YA author, Laura Hurwitz, has written a #FridayReads post this week! Be sure to check out Laura’s Tumblr

Joan Didion first entered my life when I was a college freshman. It was 1973 and the book of her collected essays on our required reading list was Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Didion got the title from the Yeats poem “The Second Coming” which you should read, if you haven’t already, because it captures the chaotic social tenor of the 1960s, which is what this particular collection of Didion’s essays encompasses.

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At the time, Didion made me feel worse than I already did about my generation, positioned as we were at the dawn of disco, which even then I perceived as the gateway culture to the ’70s Me Generation. As a young adolescent, I longed to be a hippie, to belong to a movement that was, to my mind, at least, defiant and romantic and, most of all, cohesive. I held onto this dream, which inspired and informed my YA novel, Disappear Home. Didion’s unflinching vision evoked the ’60s in a way that made me feel like a counter-culture insider, rather than a wistful wannabe.

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Didion is not just smart, but whip-smart—not simply observant, but incisively so. She is not, to quote Holden Caulfield, a phony, but the real deal. I was immediately pulled into her writerly admixture of wonder and dread, a literary vortex where things that happened mattered in a way that cut to the bone, unlike now, when it seems we just slough things off and move on. What keeps me a Didion devotee, though, is not her keen evaluative eye but the perfection of her prose.

This is “In the Islands” from her 1977 collection of essays, The White Album.

…I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind…You are getting a woman who somewhere along the line misplaced whatever slight faith she ever had in the social contract, in the meliorative principle, in the whole grand pattern of human endeavor.

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Even now, reading Didion keeps me on my toes. She requires me to look up things like “meliorative principle.” I am consistently mesmerized by her ability to examine life without the slightest intention of demystifying anything, but rather, to reveal its bewilderingly illogical complexity. She makes me acutely aware that every shiny surface connects to a dark underbelly, a fact not confined to a time period or a social movement, but emblematic of the human condition.

At 80, Joan Didion is still writing. In 2005, her memoir of her husband John’s death, The Year of Magical Thinking, won The National Book Award. The subject is intensely personal, but the theme of death and loss is universal, and the voice is one hundred percent Didion.

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What I would say is if you haven’t read Joan Didion, do. A good place to start is the collection of the full content of her first seven volume of non-fiction, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live (Everyman’s Library).

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Joan Didion, Patron Saint of the ’60s