Brilliant Essays

Slouching Toward Bethlehem

I am amazed that a collection of essays originally written and published in the 1960s still feels as relevant and immediate as this does. Joan Didion’s non-fiction is sharp and opinionated, getting right to the heart of life. I feel like I know her and she knows me. “As it happened I did not grow up to be the kind of woman who is a heroine in a Western, and although the men I have known have had many virtues and have taken me to live in many places…they have never been John Wayne, and they have never taken me to that bend in the river where the cottonwoods grow.” – John Wayne: A Love Song

So much of what she writes about in terms of politics, sexuality and self-knowledge is timeless. When she looks back on her young self in “Goodbye to All That,” we smile along with her. “One of the mixed blessings of being 20 or 21 and even 23 is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.” I absolutely loved her essay “Going Home” in which she correctly identifies the pleasure and pain in trying to fit back in with family once you’ve left the nest.

How much has not changed in almost 50 years? Read “On Morality.” “It is all right only so long as we recognize that the end may not be expedient, may or may not be a good idea, but in any case has nothing to do with ‘morality.’ Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I suspect we are already there.”

Having read both Didion’s non-fiction (Year of Magical Thinking) and her fiction (Play it as It Lays), I say it’s her true life work that wins, hands-down. I want to know this smart, somewhat sad, incredibly thoughtful woman even better.

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