Los Angeles Times

A guide to your Didion journey

Our recommenda­tions for reading the author, who died Thursday.

- By Matt Brennan and Boris Kachka

Joan Didion, who died Thursday at 87, produced decades’ worth of memorable work across genres and subjects: personal essays, reporting and criticism on pop culture, political dispatches from at home and abroad and, near the end of her career, a bestsellin­g memoir and a follow-up. Whether you’re a newcomer looking for a place to start or a reader looking to dive deeper, here’s a guide to Didion’s writing, start to finish:


If any subset of her work

made Didion’s reputation for “inevitable” sentences, it is the personal essays collected in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (1968) and “The White Album” (1979). These pieces, starting with “On Self-Respect” in 1961, and originally published in magazines such as Vogue, the American Scholar and the Saturday Evening Post, have come to be appreciate­d as models of the form, elliptical, poetic, punctuated with the author’s eye for telling detail and lacerating selfawaren­ess. Didion’s essays carefully revealed, and concealed, the correspond­ent’s inner life: As she once wrote of husband John Gregory Dunne — in a piece he edited — “We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce.”

Didion later described these essays as having been written under “crash circumstan­ces” — “On SelfRespec­t” was improvised in “two sittings,” she reflected in 2007, and written “not just to a word count or a line count but a character count” — yet they produced an astonishin­g number of unforgetta­ble phrases: “I’ve already lost touch with a couple people I used to be” (“On Keeping a Notebook,” a personal favorite); “That was the year, my twentyeigh­th, when I was discoverin­g that not all of the promises would be kept” (“Goodbye to All That,” which invented the modern “leaving New York” essay); “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” (“The White Album,” possibly the definitive rendering of the end of the ‘60s).

A number of additional magazine pieces from her early career are collected in her final published work, “Let Me Tell You What I Mean” (2021), and her observatio­ns of self and culture from the 1970s are central to her travelogue “South and West” (2017).


In and among the “personals” of “Slouching” and “The White Album” are Didion’s cucumber-cool laceration­s of the late ‘60s, casting twin gimlet eyes on the delusions of both the rockribbed squares and the child revolution­aries. From the gaudy populism of the Getty and the Sacramento Reagans to a requiem for John Wayne, the marriage of bad taste and bad money fills in where the center fails to hold. The title essay of “The White Album” swirls with Jim Morrison, the Manson “family,” Linda Kasabian’s famous dress, Huey P. Newton and all the rest as Didion bravely declines to make sense of it all. The title essay in “Slouching” culminates, likewise, in the senseless final image of a 3-year-old girl, neglected and imperiled in a hippie squat. “On Morality” and “The Women’s Movement” exude the skeptical libertaria­nism that distanced her from the madness.

To see not just where the nation moved but where Didion did, it’s worth reading the early California pieces, including “Notes from a Native Daughter,” followed by “Where I Was From” (2003), which utterly demolishes California’s disastrous myth of self-reliance step by step, anatomizin­g its dependence on government largesse from the days of the Gold Rush — the water, the power, the military-industrial muscle. And finally she goes in on herself: the pioneer woman who never was.


Throughout her career, Didion was best known for her nonfiction, but her five novels conjure an equally pungent sense of place and time. Her first book, “Run River” (1963) — inspired, she later wrote, by profound homesickne­ss — is a family melodrama about the descendant­s of pioneers that draws heavily on Didion’s Sacramento upbringing. Perhaps her most famous novel, “Play It As It Lays” (1970), is set in a very different California: the Hollywood of the late ’60s and early ’70s, suffused with the anomie of its dissolute heroine, Maria Wyeth. (Her opening monologue famously begins with an icecold allusion to Othello: “What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask.”)

But Didion’s most underrated writing may be found in three novels that reflected her growing interest in — and suspicion of — America’s empire abroad. Set in the fictional Central American nation of Boca Grande, “A Book of Common Prayer” (1977) features both acid satire of corrupt U.S.-backed regimes and a tragic riff on the tale of Patty Hearst, as protagonis­t Charlotte Douglas searches for her daughter Marin, who is on the lam with a Marxist terrorist organizati­on. Her interest in U.S. interferen­ce in the region and the absurditie­s of the late Cold War reappears in her final work of fiction, “The Last Thing He Wanted” (1996), about a reporter and a government official who fall in love amid a secret armsdealin­g operation reminiscen­t of Iran-Contra.

It is “Democracy” (1984), though, that gathers these personal and political themes into the most extraordin­ary whole, tracing a history of violence and exploitati­on from the colonizati­on of Hawaii through the dawn of the atomic age to produce Didion’s answer to the Vietnam War novel. She even casts herself as narrator: “Democracy,” set in the early 1970s, is told from the perspectiv­e of “Joan Didion,” whose focused repetition­s and circular logic as she attempts to piece together the tale of a U.S. senator, his wife and her lover presage those of her blockbuste­r memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking” (2005).


Though most Joan Didion primers begin, as this one does, with the personal essays, my introducti­on to Didion — and one I recommend if you would like to become as obsessed with her writing as I am — came through “Democracy” and the essays in “Political Fictions” (2001). Beginning in the 1980s, when she forged a close working relationsh­ip with legendary New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers, Didion shifted the focus of her reporting away from culture: She relayed searing descriptio­ns of war-torn El Salvador in “Salvador” (1983), captured the the conspirato­rial fever surroundin­g much of U.S.-Cuba politics in “Miami” (1987) and detailed the ways in which Sept. 11 became a jingoistic cudgel in “Fixed Ideas” (2003).

But for their exceedingl­y thorough and ultimately devastatin­g authority, there may be no better place to go to understand our current political disaster, and the media’s role in it, than Didion’s dispatches from the presidenti­al campaigns of 1988 (“Insider Baseball”) and 1992 (“Eyes on the Prize”), her exasperate­d reflection­s on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal (“Clinton Agonistes”) or her poisonousl­y funny takedown of Bob Woodward (“The Deferentia­l Spirit,” 1996), author of books “in which measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent.”

She also applied the technique in the damning “Sentimenta­l Journeys” (collected in 1992’s “After Henry”), detailing the process by which politician­s and the press railroaded the Central Park Five in the hothouse atmosphere of late-'80s New York.


Despite a career in which she befriended celebritie­s like Natalie Wood and Tony Richardson — and employed Harrison Ford as a carpenter — Didion reached the height of her prominence with her bestsellin­g memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” published in 2005.

While she had experiment­ed with the form two years prior in “Where I Was From,” it was her heartbreak­ingly lucid dissection of grief that captured the imaginatio­n of the broader public, earning her wide acclaim and the National Book Award.

“Magical Thinking” recounts a year in Didion’s life in which she grappled with Dunne’s 2003 death from cardiac arrest and daughter Quintana Roo’s serious illness, combining her readings of Sigmund Freud and Emily Post with vivid memories from one of 20th century literature’s most intimate marriages. Her followup, “Blue Nights” (2011), which looked back on Quintana’s untimely death in 2005, offered a more caustic vision, searching her relationsh­ip with her daughter for moments she wrongfoote­d herself while revealing her own declining health. In the process she developed a late style all her own — incantator­y and poetic but never (God forbid) sentimenta­l.

 ?? Jennifer S. Altman For the Times ?? JOAN DIDION in 2005 with a portrait of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. In “The Year of Magical Thinking,” she dissects grief as she grapples with his death.
Jennifer S. Altman For the Times JOAN DIDION in 2005 with a portrait of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. In “The Year of Magical Thinking,” she dissects grief as she grapples with his death.
 ?? Robert Durell Los Angeles Times ?? AUTHOR Joan Didion at UC Berkeley in 1996, before reading remembranc­es of her life as a student there.
Robert Durell Los Angeles Times AUTHOR Joan Didion at UC Berkeley in 1996, before reading remembranc­es of her life as a student there.

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