This was my first foray into Didion’s writing, and now I’m wondering what took me so long. Slouching Towards Bethlehem seemed to be a good place to start, comprised as it is of a selection of short essays on various topics. She covers everything from a murder case to hippies in San Francisco to Joan Baez to morality.
Many of the essays are significantly dated at this point, having been written and published in the 1960s. Some I had very little interest in and they were a bit of a slog to get through (particularly the title essay, which is the longest in the book). I connected most strongly with her forays into self-exploration towards the end of the book. There were multiple entire sections I marked and copied out to re-read later, and so many that resonated with my own experiences and thoughts (though in much more poetic prose than I could ever produce). My favourite is from the essay entitled “On Keeping A Notebook”:
I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.
I think this speaks particularly strongly to me at this moment in my life, as I struggle to piece together the parts of myself that have been misplaced, that have disappeared, that have been forced out and that are left behind. With all that has changed in my life in the past few years, I often find myself sitting still, paralyzed by a sense of not recognizing the person I am inhabiting, and wondering where the person I had come to know so well might have gone. I’ve been so many different people at various points in my life, but none have come about so suddenly, so painfully, as the person I am struggling to find myself in at the moment. I think one of the hardest things I have yet to face is the need to reconcile my various selves, and to feel whole once again.
Though I may not have had much interest in some of her topics, this book proved one thing about Didion – she can write. There were stories in here whose content I had no interest in, but that Didion managed to make me want to keep reading (there were others even she couldn’t interest me in, but I suspect she did better than most would have). And there were many passages, like the one quoted above, that I suspect will haunt me for years.
I’m quite curious to read her other books, but the other two I’ve heard the most about – A Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights – also scare me. The former is about the death of her husband and the latter is about the death of her daughter, both of which occurred in the same year. I don’t think I could handle experiencing that, even as a passive observer. But one day I will, and I’m sure they will live up to the promise presented in this book.
I’d definitely recommend this book as a good springboard into Didion’s work – but feel free to skip a few of the essays if they bore you. Just make it to the end, as in my opinion that’s the best part.
The first nonfiction work by one of the most distinctive prose stylists of our era, Slouching Towards Bethlehem remains, forty years after its first publication, the essential portrait of America— particularly California—in the sixties. It focuses on such subjects as John Wayne and Howard Hughes, growing up a girl in California, ruminating on the nature of good and evil in a Death Valley motel room, and, especially, the essence of San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, the heart of the counterculture. – Goodreads
Book Title: Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Author: Joan Didion
Published By: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Released: October 28, 2008 (first published 1968)
Genre: Non-Fiction, Essays
Date Read: January 9-28, 2018
Average Goodreads Rating: 4.23 (23,081 ratings)