Book Club • Slouching Towards Bethlehem

 

   

 

 

I’m Changing My Major to Joan

Courtney Preiss

 

When I summon Joan Didion to the forefront of my mind, I wonder if there’s anything more I can say about a woman iconic enough to have an entire essay genre and a Céline print advertisement to her name. Is there an original thought left to be had about the woman who has transcended culture in such a way that her face graced the back of a $1,200 leather jacket last season?

 

I first read Slouching Towards Bethlehem—Didion’s first non-fiction collection, published in 1968—when I was twenty years old, living on a famous street in Boston and preparing to move to Los Angeles. I was rattled upon completing the collection of essays, at once falling in love with her and berating myself for not having become a fervent devotee sooner.

 

You see, I too was a migraine sufferer with a uniform wardrobe and an ear to the street trying to mine my surroundings for compelling essay content. My college student–caliber arrogance allowed me a short spell of thinking that aspirations to be Joan Didion was my thing. (I ask, as she once famously did: was anyone ever so young?) However bratty the claim, it was one that echoed in the minds of my friends—each of whom had come to me at quiet phases over the passing years, all armed with the same question.

 

“Say I wanted to get into Joan Didion…where would you recommend I begin?”

 

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is broken out into three sections: “Lifestyles in the Golden Land,” an exploration of Didion’s native California; “Personals,” her espousal of maintaining a notebook and some self-respect, among other things; and “Seven Places of the Mind,” featuring essays that jump in time and place.

 

There are pieces that stand out among others—ones that have carved spaces in my mind and stuck to my ribs against the test of time. The titular essay opens in a time and place of exponential social change in our country—San Francisco in 1967—with the note: “The center was not holding.” Didion escorts us through this essential slice of American culture by way of Grateful Dead jam sessions, parties among adopted bands of runaway friends, and a morning spent with a five-year-old girl whose mother regularly dosed her with LSD in lieu of sending her to kindergarten.

 

The idea of staying on nodding terms with oneself, introduced in “On Keeping a Notebook,” is a life changing notion—one that allows the readers a better understanding of themselves in an instant. It allows for personal reconciliations perhaps not yet afforded us before reading about how Joan pored over her own notebooks and made peace with the younger incarnations of herself who made the notes years prior.

 

Joan Didion by Julian Wasser, Dan Ziger Gallery

Joan Didion by Julian Wasser, Dan Ziger Gallery

And then of course there is the essay Didion is most famous for these days. Chances are, if a sampling of twenty-something, city-dwelling women were surveyed on how they came across Joan Didion and what they knew her for, a sizable portion would say they came across her packing list on Tumblr, but a greater portion still would cite her ubiquitous essay about leaving New York City.

 

“Goodbye to All That” is the first Didion essay in the collection I read that summer in Boston when she first hooked me, so I have always understood its potency despite my eventual bristling at the frequency to which it is referred. In it, she describes moving to Manhattan in her early twenties, falling in love with the city “the way you love the first person who ever touches you and never love anyone quite that way again,” and returning home to California eight years later.

 

Visceral, evocative, intimate, and yet all the while maintaining an air of mystery and distance—it is both a powerful breakup song and the first in a genre of essays to follow in its mighty imprint. It is the piece that self-anointed “expats” who leave Manhattan for one reason or another continue to draw from, and even prompted a 2013 anthology of the same name, comprised of essays written on the subject. If you are a New Yorker, or ever were one, you will read “Goodbye to All That” either with supreme arrogance or utmost empathy, depending on where you are in your current relationship with the city.

 

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a collection that has the ability to alter the way you view your role within the conversations you are a part of, be they notably major or seemingly mundane. It is a book that has the ability to make you believe in the power of your own stories.

 

If you have ever dreamt of a bygone era where Haight meets Ashbury, tried to decipher your own notebooks, lived in/loved/left New York—this is a book and an icon for you.

 

Of note. If you are among the throngs seeking absolution in the aforementioned grand farewell to New York that launched a thousand essays, please bear in mind: Ms. Didion eventually returned. She currently resides on East 71st Street.