Thursday, July 29, 2021

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

We all have books that we think we should have read already. If we read a lot, paradoxically, that list is much longer than that of people who read only a few books. If you read mostly Nora Roberts, you might be behind on a series or two. If you worked in SF publishing and got an English degree, there are entire sub-genres with big shelves of books that you haven't managed to touch yet, and a few dozen more authors you think of as just "being a little behind on."

So I'm not apologizing for finally reading Joan Didion's famous 1968 first collection of essays and journalism, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I've had it on the shelf - as part of the Everyman's Library compendium We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, along with her next six nonfiction books - for fifteen years, and managed to read the first seven essays once before. This time I got to the end: I'm happy about that, and hope to get to The White Album (or maybe Play It As It Lays) sooner than fifteen years from now.

Didion is the master of New Journalism who didn't turn into a self-parody, who didn't become a persona rather than a writer, the one who kept writing and saying important things. I know that much, even if the only other book of hers I've read is The Year of Magical Thinking. But, either way, this book is the beginning: the stories she wrote for magazines, apparently mostly The Saturday Evening Post of all things, in the mid-60s. These were her first years in California, the years right after her marriage to John Gregory Dunne, the years when her only daughter was born. They were also years when the culture was changing, and Slouching is famously one of the books about that changing culture: Didion was in her early thirties, which feels ancient in the middle of youth culture, and the still-inchoate rebellion and drug culture and anti-capitalism and anti-war and anti-"straight life" world was massively a youth culture, made up of Boomers barely in their late teens.

This is not a book that will give you a history or an outline. It's made up of magazine articles written at the time, each one a story about a thing in a place, commissioned by some editor who thought his (almost certainly his, in those years) readers would be interested in that. But Didion was in Los Angeles, and came from Sacramento, and traveled more widely in California and elsewhere: she was in the right places to talk to the right people, and had the mind to put it into precise, often devastating sentences that make it all as clear as anything can ever be.

Slouching doesn't cover any major events. Didion, at least at this point in her career, wasn't that kind of journalist. She was more of the "go there and report back what it's like to be Joan Didion in this place" kind of writer, and being Joan Didion was a powerful lens to view the world through. It is mostly about California, as a collection of places, as an idea of itself, and as the dream of America. It was written and published before the major tumults we now think of as defining the '60s - those began in the hot summer and brittle fall of 1968 and continued on through about '71, and this book was published by mid-68.

So it's not dated in the ways you might expect. There's nothing of the museum about it. The young people Didion writes about in the title essay say different things than young people in 2021, are worried and incensed about different problems. But their passion and fire are entirely familiar: from now, from then, from our own lives.

I don't know that I agree with anyone's self-aggrandizing mythology of California, even Didion's. But I believe that they believe it, and Didion's mythology is deep and specific and rooted in particular lives, centered on her own experience, and has great explanatory power. I'm also not one to say that any specific book "must be read by everyone," but this is a great book about an important moment in this country: it casts a lot of light very precisely on a lot of things Americans should think about and understand. And it is essential for anyone studying that California dream.

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