Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Who is Joan Didion?

As a freshman in Journalism School more than 20 years ago, one of my professors produced a list of journalists, known for the literary style of their writing. He told us to begin reading these men and women. I noted that I had never heard of most of the names on the list and I also promptly forgot about it to go on to whatever was occupying my time in college. Imagine, time for reading, in college!?

The name Joan Didion was on the list and it has haunted me ever since. I saw her name everywhere and on everything. I began to understand she was a prolific writer but had no curiosity about her other than to note she must be pretty old.

Recently, I was reading someone's "top five books that changed my life" and here was a curious title: We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live by Joan Didion.

It was this very provocative title that finally prompted me to check out a book from the library. We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live is a non-fiction collection of 7 of Joan Didion's books which were compilations of her long essays and journalism pieces written since the mid 1960's.

She writes of celebrities (John Wayne and Joan Baez and Howard Hughes) and the hippy culture of California and scandalous murder trials. Her writing is clear and her stories are tightly woven. The writing has a kind of 1960's feel to it--the style and the topics and at times it feels like a there are a few too many acid trips, but it is important writing and as the stories travel on through the years her writing stays fresh and original.

The title of the book aptly describes the power of storytelling to heal, to entertain, to inform and to paint a compelling portrait of the world we inhabit. We DO tell ourselves stories in order to live.

Ms Didion won a National Book Award for her most recent book The Year of Magical Thinking. This is the account of the year after her husband of 40 years died and her daughter was gravely ill. Joan Didion was in her 70s when she wrote this. I am finally reading my college reading list, about 20 years late.

Discovering Didion's work after all these years is really a perfect illustration of how the perfect book arrives at your door just when you need to read it. What books have you read at the right time?

1 comment:

Steph said...

I started to read The Year of Magical Thinking. I loved it - so open - and I couldn't finish it. Too much bleeding into my past (thinking of my Mom). Perhaps I'll try some of her others.