I can’t quite remember how I came across Joan Didion. I think I saw reference to her packing list from The White Album featured in Vogue, reverently displayed as some kind of gospel of chic, because Joan has always been viewed by the critics as the pinnacle of disaffected-cool fashion. Here’s part of it:
TO PACK AND WEAR:
2 jerseys or leotards
1 pullover sweater
2 pair shoes
nightgown, robe, slippers
There was something so attractively minimalist, yet at the same time so subversive (the bourbon, later in the list there’s a typewriter), that I couldn’t help but look her up. And so I read The Year of Magical Thinking, the devastating novel where she processes her husbands death in her strange, descriptive, pragmatic and stepwise style (I can’t bring myself to read Blue Nights), and was fascinated. Her prose is perfect. I’d never come across a style so technically perfect as hers. And yet her constant peppering of high-end brands and name-dropping seemed to grate against something like the loss of her husband. It irritated me, but I couldn’t stop reading. It’s this name-dropping that has led her to be labelled a ‘perennial insider’ by critics for years. Someone who doesn’t understand the masses, the middle classes. And then I read The White Album just recently, and realised that it’s not that at all.
Joan and I have something in common. In her work as a journalist, she was privvy to the worst of humanity, the most meaningless of bureaucracy, and the most narcissistic of human taste. In my work as a doctor, I am privvy to the worst of humanity, the most meaningless of bureaucracy, and the most narcissistic of human taste. And I understand how, when you intertwine those concepts together, they grate. Because they are jarringly and nonsensically in opposition with each other, with our values, and our innate humanity. And now I can’t get enough of her work.
The White Album is a collection of works that she’d previously had published in various magazines like Life and Esquire, and as a collection they are a jarring discourse on America in a transformative time. Her critics have a lot to say about her, she seems to irritate them and I like to think that she likes that. I highly recommend The White Album and The Year of Magical Thinking, I’ll probably follow this up with a list of her other books when I’ve read them!