I’ve made no secret of my love and admiration for Joan Didion. I first read her when I was an editorial assistant at a big publishing house. Blue Valentine was the movie everyone in the bullpen was discussing, and I YouTubed Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams to see how their chemistry translated off-screen (it was pretty epic). Fortuitously, I came across a Nightline segment where Michelle discussed Heath Ledger’s death, and how she read Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking to help cope with his passing. “It didn’t seem unlikely to me that he could walk through a door or could appear from behind a bush,” she said in the interview. “It was a year of very magical thinking.”
I hadn’t yet known The Year of Magical Thinking was a memoir about the grief Didion endured after losing her husband, novelist John Gregory Dunne, nor did I know it had won her the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction. All I knew was the term “magical thinking” intrigued me; that in the midst of pain we believe the impossible is possible. I went to the Borders (RIP) by Madison Square Garden that night, and devoured the book in one sitting. Thus began my new life as a Didion fanboy.
With the release of her latest book South and West back in March, I’ve recently been asked why I adore Joan Didion so much. My response is simple: I don’t read her essays, they read me. When I picture her in my mind, I see a bespectacled mercenary driving through an apocalyptic landscape in a white corvette, not in search of bounty, but of answers.
In celebration of the announcement that her long-awaited documentary “The Center Will Not Hold” will premiere at the New York Film Festival in September, I took a look at Didion’s classic essays. Below are the top five essays that have made readers cry, think, and, above all else, believe.
5. “In The Realm of the Fisher King” (After Henry)
After Henry, originally published in 1992, is perhaps Didion’s most unsung collection. In it she shatters illusions constructed by the American media in the 80s, while simultaneously chronicling the political atmosphere across the nation. “The Realm of the Fisher King” gives readers a raw and personal look at the Regan years through the lens of Peggy Noonan, Regan’s speechwriter, and First Lady Nancy Regan.
What makes this essay interesting isn’t just that she compares the Regans to actors on set, but rather the inside look at their everyday life. For example, President Regan kept photos of families who wrote to him in his desk drawer and Mrs. Regan was shocked they had to pay for their own meals. Yea this book doesn’t sound at all relevant in today’s political atmosphere, does it?
4. Miami (Miami)
Okay, I’m cheating a little here. Technically this next selection on my list is a book, not an essay. But hear me out. Miami began to change when many Cubans sought asylum in the Sunshine State back in the early 60s. Spanish-speaking households, quinceaneras, and salsa may all be common aspects of Miami’s culture today, but in the 1980s they weren’t. Miami is Didion’s analysis of the significant transformation Miami underwent.
As a Cuban-American myself, I struggled with some of Didion’s opinions in this book. In particular, she holds no prisoners when discussing the Cuban exodus’ ramifications on Miami’s African-American community. It’s a tough read, especially in today’s world, but it’s worth it.
3. “The White Album” (The White Album)
The titular essay of the 1979 collection is a lyrical odyssey through the stormy waters of Didion’s life in the 60s. It begins with her meeting Jim Morrison during a recording session for The Doors. As Didion writes, “The curious aspect of Morrison’s arrival was this: no one acknowledged it.” She eventually dives into her personal life, specifically about her brief institutionalization at a mental hospital as well as her fears regarding the Manson Family murders (she knew Sharon Tate).
What Didion does so masterfully in this essay is capture the paranoia of that time. If you haven’t read this essay, I suggest you do so ASAP. It’s not only a literary triumph, but also a gritty glimpse into a dystopian America.
2. “After Life” (The Year of Magical Thinking)
Didion’s most heartbreaking work to date. “After Life” is the first five chapters of The Year of M
agical Thinking, and appeared in the New York Times on September 2005, a month before the landmark memoir was published. Warning, have a box of tissues by your side. Didion doesn’t hold back in documenting the shock of losing her husband: “Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”
The book was adapted into a Broadway play starring Vanessa Redgrave as Joan Didion. However the story was revised to include the death of Didion’s daughter, Quintana, which happened during her book tour for The Year of Magical Thinking. Didion would later write about Quintana’s death in her last memoir, Blue Nights.
1. “Goodbye to All That” (Slouching Towards Bethlehem)
As if any Didion fan needs an introduction to this one. This, ladies and gentlemen, is most people’s gateway to Didion. In “Goodbye to All That” she writes about her love affair with New York City and how it came to an end. The story first appeared appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, and would later be anthologized in her 1968 essay collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Just to refresh your memory on how kick-ass this essay is:
“I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was.”
Writer’s note: I originally penned a version of this essay for HelloGiggles back in 2015.