Ranking My Favorite Joan Didion Books Was Harder Than I Expected
An idea popped in my head today. I thought, "let me write about Joan Didion." After all, I am a writer and a fan. As I began bringing this idea to fruition a wave of anxiety washed over me (as it often does) when I realized I "had" to "rank" Joan Didion's books.
Is it even possible to rank such a talented writer's work? And who am I to be the one doing it? I'm nowhere near as talented and haven't earned enough respect in the literary world to do such a thing. And while I am fearful in publishing something that feels above my pay grade, I have the wherewithal to know that this piece is a celebration, not a criticism.
About Joan Didion
Born in Sacramento, California Joan Didion has become one of the most popular writers of the generation.
Her prose is often celebrated, as John Leonard of the New York Times once stated:
"Her nervous system is a San Andreas Fault ... Language is her seismograph and style her sanity. Nobody writes better English prose than Joan Didion."
If you take a writing class, major in literature, or love reading, you know how praised Didion is as a writer. She's become a symbol of feminism, a woman who wrote honestly about her life, even the less appealing parts like divorce and the ups and downs of motherhood.
I envy the way she writes so effortlessly about the world she sees. She simply tells you who she encountered, what a gas station looked like in the 1960s, and the world she envisions through her lens. A new generation of women are learning about her writing, thus proving her talent is timeless.
Recently, I took the time to read through her collection of published work and found great joy in reading pieces of history that still have meaning today. Some of the best Joan Didion books are easy to get through and almost impossible to put down.
1. South and West
I am currently reading South and West, so it is still fresh in my mind. Joan and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, embark on a trip through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. She takes notes on what she sees, the people she interacts with, and the southern culture some of us might not be aware of. Race, class, gender, politics, South and West has it all and although it was written in the '70s, many themes still linger in our modern times.
2. The White Album
If you're anything like me, you're intrigued by the '60s. From Charles Manson to the Black Panthers, Didion dives in on the happenings of the era with her classic observation on culture and media.
First published in 1979, The White Album records indelibly the upheavals and aftermaths of the 1960s. Examining key events, figures, and trends of the era―including Charles Manson, the Black Panthers, and the shopping mall―through the lens of her own spiritual confusion, Joan Didion helped to define mass culture as we now understand it. Written with a commanding sureness of tone and linguistic precision, The White Album is a central text of American reportage and a classic of American autobiography.
3. The Year of Magical Thinking
The Year of Magical Thinking is a Joan Didion book I pick up and put back down. For me, it can be too sad, too heavy. After all, Didion writes about the passing of her husband and how we relate to grief in our everyday lives. It is always regarded as a phenomenal book on mourning and loss, so if that's something you need, here it is. Of course, it is still one of her best novels as she weaves marriage, family, love, and death together.
4. Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Didion's first nonfiction work, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, is a literary classic. Who other than Joan Didion would write about California in the '60s? She details her childhood, how growing up in California shaped her, and the influential people and places that defined a state and generation.
5. Blue Nights
After the loss of her daughter, Quintana Roo, Didion reflects on her time as a mom and her daughter's life. Didion magically touches upon parenthood: the fears, the love, and everything that comes with it. She contemplates her age, a factor in death, and growing old, one she doesn't know how to process. It's a beautiful piece of work and one you should read in this lifetime.
The Best of Joan Didion
While I don't claim to have the talent to give her any credit, I will say that because Joan Didion exists, a generation of female writers gets to read, learn, and absorb from her work. She eloquently married culture and tone in a very unique way. The best Joan Didion books are hard to narrow down, because all of them fit the bill.
Joan Didion Documentary
If you want to learn more about Joan Didion, her life, and her work, tune into The Center Will Not Hold on Netflix. Watch the trailer below.
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