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20 great articles and essays by joan didion, on life and death, goodbye to all that, on morality, on self respect, fixed opinions, or the hinge of history, insider baseball, the women's movement, slouching towards bethlehem, the shopping center, the american frontier reinvented, in sable and dark glasses, marrying absurd, the promises martha stewart made—and why we wanted to believe them, 150 great articles and essays.

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On Self-Respect: Joan Didion’s 1961 Essay from the Pages of Vogue

By Joan Didion

Joan Didion , author, journalist, and style icon, died today after a prolonged illness. She was 87 years old. Here, in its original layout, is Didion’s seminal essay “Self-respect: Its Source, Its Power,” which was first published in Vogue in 1961, and which was republished as “On Self-Respect” in the author’s 1968 collection, Slouching Towards Bethlehem.​ Didion wrote the essay as the magazine was going to press, to fill the space left after another writer did not produce a piece on the same subject. She wrote it not to a word count or a line count, but to an exact character count.

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Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself. Although now, some years later, I marvel that a mind on the outs with itself should have nonetheless made painstaking record of its every tremor, I recall with embarrassing clarity the flavor of those particular ashes. It was a matter of misplaced self-respect.

I had not been elected to Phi Beta Kappa. This failure could scarcely have been more predictable or less ambiguous (I simply did not have the grades), but I was unnerved by it; I had somehow thought myself a kind of academic Raskolnikov, curiously exempt from the cause-effect relationships that hampered others. Although the situation must have had even then the approximate tragic stature of Scott Fitzgerald's failure to become president of the Princeton Triangle Club, the day that I did not make Phi Beta Kappa nevertheless marked the end of something, and innocence may well be the word for it. I lost the conviction that lights would always turn green for me, the pleasant certainty that those rather passive virtues which had won me approval as a child automatically guaranteed me not only Phi Beta Kappa keys but happiness, honour, and the love of a good man (preferably a cross between Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca and one of the Murchisons in a proxy fight); lost a certain touching faith in the totem power of good manners, clean hair, and proven competence on the Stanford-Binet scale. To such doubtful amulets had my self-respect been pinned, and I faced myself that day with the nonplussed wonder of someone who has come across a vampire and found no garlands of garlic at hand.

Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect. Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the most difficult deception. The charms that work on others count for nothing in that devastatingly well-lit back alley where one keeps assignations with oneself: no winning smiles will do here, no prettily drawn lists of good intentions. With the desperate agility of a crooked faro dealer who spots Bat Masterson about to cut himself into the game, one shuffles flashily but in vain through one's marked cards—the kindness done for the wrong reason, the apparent triumph which had involved no real effort, the seemingly heroic act into which one had been shamed. The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others—who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation—which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O'Hara, is something that people with courage can do without.

To do without self-respect, on the other hand, is to be an unwilling audience of one to an interminable home movie that documents one's failings, both real and imagined, with fresh footage spliced in for each screening. There’s the glass you broke in anger, there's the hurt on X's face; watch now, this next scene, the night Y came back from Houston, see how you muff this one. To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, beyond the reach of warm milk, phenobarbital, and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commission and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice or carelessness. However long we postpone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously un- comfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.

Joan Didion

Joan Didion

To protest that some fairly improbable people, some people who could not possibly respect themselves, seem to sleep easily enough is to miss the point entirely, as surely as those people miss it who think that self-respect has necessarily to do with not having safety pins in one's underwear. There is a common superstition that "self-respect" is a kind of charm against snakes, something that keeps those who have it locked in some unblighted Eden, out of strange beds, ambivalent conversations, and trouble in general. It does not at all. It has nothing to do with the face of things, but concerns instead a separate peace, a private reconciliation. Although the careless, suicidal Julian English in Appointment in Samarra and the careless, incurably dishonest Jordan Baker in The Great Gatsby seem equally improbable candidates for self-respect, Jordan Baker had it, Julian English did not. With that genius for accommodation more often seen in women than in men, Jordan took her own measure, made her own peace, avoided threats to that peace: "I hate careless people," she told Nick Carraway. "It takes two to make an accident."

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Like Jordan Baker, people with self-respect have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things. If they choose to commit adultery, they do not then go running, in an access of bad conscience, to receive absolution from the wronged parties; nor do they complain unduly of the unfairness, the undeserved embarrassment, of being named corespondent. If they choose to forego their work—say it is screenwriting—in favor of sitting around the Algonquin bar, they do not then wonder bitterly why the Hacketts, and not they, did Anne Frank.

In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character, a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to other, more instantly negotiable virtues. The measure of its slipping prestige is that one tends to think of it only in connection with homely children and with United States senators who have been defeated, preferably in the primary, for re-election. Nonetheless, character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.

Self-respect is something that our grandparents, whether or not they had it, knew all about. They had instilled in them, young, a certain discipline, the sense that one lives by doing things one does not particularly want to do, by putting fears and doubts to one side, by weighing immediate comforts against the possibility of larger, even intangible, comforts. It seemed to the nineteenth century admirable, but not remarkable, that Chinese Gordon put on a clean white suit and held Khartoum against the Mahdi; it did not seem unjust that the way to free land in California involved death and difficulty and dirt. In a diary kept during the winter of 1846, an emigrating twelve-year-old named Narcissa Cornwall noted coolly: "Father was busy reading and did not notice that the house was being filled with strange Indians until Mother spoke about it." Even lacking any clue as to what Mother said, one can scarcely fail to be impressed by the entire incident: the father reading, the Indians filing in, the mother choosing the words that would not alarm, the child duly recording the event and noting further that those particular Indians were not, "fortunately for us," hostile. Indians were simply part of the donnée.

In one guise or another, Indians always are. Again, it is a question of recognizing that anything worth having has its price. People who respect themselves are willing to accept the risk that the Indians will be hostile, that the venture will go bankrupt, that the liaison may not turn out to be one in which every day is a holiday because you’re married to me. They are willing to invest something of themselves; they may not play at all, but when they do play, they know the odds.

That kind of self-respect is a discipline, a habit of mind that can never be faked but can be developed, trained, coaxed forth. It was once suggested to me that, as an antidote to crying, I put my head in a paper bag. As it happens, there is a sound physiological reason, something to do with oxygen, for doing exactly that, but the psychological effect alone is incalculable: it is difficult in the extreme to continue fancying oneself Cathy in Wuthering Heights with one's head in a Food Fair bag. There is a similar case for all the small disciplines, unimportant in themselves; imagine maintaining any kind of swoon, commiserative or carnal, in a cold shower.

But those small disciplines are valuable only insofar as they represent larger ones. To say that Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton is not to say that Napoleon might have been saved by a crash program in cricket; to give formal dinners in the rain forest would be pointless did not the candlelight flickering on the liana call forth deeper, stronger disciplines, values instilled long before. It is a kind of ritual, helping us to remember who and what we are. In order to remember it, one must have known it.

To have that sense of one's intrinsic worth which, for better or for worse, constitutes self-respect, is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference. If we do not respect ourselves, we are on the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out—since our self-image is untenable—their false notions of us. We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gift for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give. Of course we will play Francesca to Paolo, Brett Ashley to Jake, Helen Keller to anyone's Annie Sullivan: no expectation is too misplaced, no rôle too ludicrous. At the mercy of those we can not but hold in contempt, we play rôles doomed to failure before they are begun, each defeat generating fresh despair at the necessity of divining and meeting the next demand made upon us.

It is the phenomenon sometimes called alienation from self. In its advanced stages, we no longer answer the telephone, because someone might want something; that we could say no without drowning in self-reproach is an idea alien to this game. Every encounter demands too much, tears the nerves, drains the will, and the spectre of something as small as an unanswered letter arouses such disproportionate guilt that one's sanity becomes an object of speculation among one's acquaintances. To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves—there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.

The essential Joan Didion: An L.A. Times reading list for newcomers and fans alike

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Joan Didion, who died Thursday at 87 , produced decades’ worth of memorable work across genres and subjects: personal essays, reporting and criticism on pop culture, political dispatches from at home and abroad and, near the end of her career, a bestselling memoir and a follow-up. Whether you’re a newcomer looking for a place to start or a reader looking to dive deeper, here’s a guide to Didion’s writing, start to finish:

The White Album by Joan Didion

The ‘personals’

If any subset of her work made Didion’s reputation for “inevitable” sentences, it is the personal essays collected in “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” (1968) and “The White Album” (1979). These pieces, starting with “On Self-Respect” in 1961, and originally published in magazines such as Vogue, the American Scholar and the Saturday Evening Post, have come to be appreciated as models of the form, elliptical, poetic, punctuated with the author’s eye for telling detail and lacerating self-awareness. Didion’s essays carefully revealed, and concealed, the correspondent’s inner life: As she once wrote of husband John Gregory Dunne — in a piece he edited — “We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce.”

Didion later described these essays as having been written under “crash circumstances” — “On Self-Respect” was improvised in “two sittings,” she reflected in 2007 , and written “not just to a word count or a line count but a character count” — yet they produced an astonishing number of unforgettable phrases: “I’ve already lost touch with a couple people I used to be” ( “On Keeping a Notebook,” a personal favorite); “That was the year, my twenty-eighth, when I was discovering that not all of the promises would be kept” ( “Goodbye to All That,” which invented the modern “leaving New York” essay); “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” (“The White Album,” possibly the definitive rendering of the end of the ‘60s).

Joan Didion, masterful essayist, novelist and screenwriter, dies at 87

Didion bridged the world of Hollywood, journalism and literature in a career that arced most brilliantly in the realms of social criticism and memoir.

Dec. 23, 2021

A number of additional magazine pieces from her early career are collected in her final published work , “Let Me Tell You What I Mean ” (2021), and her observations of self and culture from the 1970s are central to her travelogue “South and West” (2017).

"Slouching Towards Bethlehem," by Joan Didion

The counterculture reporting

In and among the “personals” of “Slouching” and “The White Album” are Didion’s cucumber-cool lacerations of the late ‘60s, casting twin gimlet eyes on the delusions of both the rock-ribbed squares and the child revolutionaries. From the gaudy populism of the Getty and the Sacramento Reagans to a requiem for John Wayne, the marriage of bad taste and bad money fills in where the center fails to hold. The title essay of “The White Album” swirls with Jim Morrison, the Manson “family,” Linda Kasabian’s famous dress, Huey P. Newton and all the rest as Didion bravely declines to make sense of it all. The title essay in “Slouching” culminates, likewise, in the senseless final image of a 3-year-old boy, neglected and imperiled in a hippie squat. “On Morality” and “The Women’s Movement” exude the skeptical libertarianism that distanced her from the madness.

To see not just where the nation moved but where Didion did, it’s worth reading the early California pieces, including “Notes from a Native Daughter,” followed by “Where I Was From” (2003), which utterly demolishes California’s disastrous myth of self-reliance step by step, anatomizing its dependence on government largesse from the days of the Gold Rush — the water, the power, the military-industrial muscle. And finally she goes in on herself: the pioneer woman who never was.

Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion

Throughout her career, Didion was best known for her nonfiction, but her five novels conjure an equally pungent sense of place and time. Her first book, “Run River ” (1963) — inspired, she later wrote, by profound homesickness — is a family melodrama about the descendants of pioneers that draws heavily on Didion’s Sacramento upbringing. Perhaps her most famous novel, “Play It As It Lays” (1970), is set in a very different California: the Hollywood of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, suffused with the anomie of its dissolute heroine, Maria Wyeth. (Her opening monologue famously begins with an ice-cold allusion to Othello: “What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask.”)

But Didion’s most underrated writing may be found in three novels that reflected her growing interest in — and suspicion of — America’s empire abroad. Set in the fictional Central American nation of Boca Grande, “A Book of Common Prayer” (1977) features both acid satire of corrupt U.S.-backed regimes and a tragic riff on the tale of Patty Hearst, as protagonist Charlotte Douglas searches for her daughter Marin, who is on the lam with a Marxist terrorist organization. Her interest in U.S. interference in the region and the absurdities of the late Cold War reappears in her final work of fiction, “The Last Thing He Wanted ” (1996), about a reporter and a government official who fall in love amid a secret arms-dealing operation reminiscent of Iran-Contra.

Joan Didion, wearing a white shirt, stands in the hallway of her apartment, next to a portrait of her late husband

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Photos: Joan Didion, masterful essayist, novelist and screenwriter, dies at 87

Photos from the life of Joan Didion, who chronicled California, politics and sorrow in ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’ and ‘Year of Magical Thinking.’

It is “Democracy” (1984), though, that gathers these personal and political themes into the most extraordinary whole, tracing a history of violence and exploitation from the colonization of Hawaii through the dawn of the atomic age to produce Didion’s answer to the Vietnam War novel. She even casts herself as narrator: “Democracy,” set in the early 1970s, is told from the perspective of “Joan Didion,” whose focused repetitions and circular logic as she attempts to piece together the tale of a U.S. senator, his wife and her lover presage those of her blockbuster memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking” (2005).

"Salvador," by Joan Didion

The political commentary

Though most Joan Didion primers begin, as this one does, with the personal essays, my introduction to Didion — and one I recommend if you would like to become as obsessed with her writing as I am — came through “Democracy” and the essays in “Political Fictions” (2001). Beginning in the 1980s, when she forged a close working relationship with legendary New York Review of Books editor Robert Silvers, Didion shifted the focus of her reporting away from culture: She relayed searing descriptions of war-torn El Salvador in “Salvador” (1983), captured the the conspiratorial fever surrounding much of U.S.-Cuba politics in “Miami” (1987) and detailed the ways in which Sept. 11 became a jingoistic cudgel in “Fixed Ideas” (2003).

But for their exceedingly thorough and ultimately devastating authority, there may be no better place to go to understand our current political disaster, and the media’s role in it, than Didion’s dispatches from the presidential campaigns of 1988 (“Insider Baseball”) and 1992 (“Eyes on the Prize”), her exasperated reflections on the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal (“Clinton Agonistes”) or her poisonously funny takedown of Bob Woodward (“The Deferential Spirit,” 1996), author of books “in which measurable cerebral activity is virtually absent.”

She also applied the technique in the damning “Sentimental Journeys” (collected in 1992’s “After Henry ”), detailing the process by which politicians and the press railroaded the Central Park Five in the hothouse atmosphere of late-’80s New York.

"The Year of Magical Thinking," by Joan Didion

The late memoirs

Despite a career in which she befriended celebrities like Natalie Wood and Tony Richardson — and employed Harrison Ford as a carpenter — Didion reached the height of her prominence with her bestselling memoir, “The Year of Magical Thinking, ” published in 2005. While she had experimented with the form two years prior in “Where I Was From,” it was her heartbreakingly lucid dissection of grief that captured the imagination of the broader public, earning her wide acclaim and the National Book Award. “Magical Thinking” recounts a year in Didion’s life in which she grappled with Dunne’s 2003 death from cardiac arrest and daughter Quintana Roo’s serious illness, combining her readings of Sigmund Freud and Emily Post with vivid memories from one of 20th century literature’s most intimate marriages. Her follow-up , “Blue Nights” (2011), which looked back on Quintana’s untimely death in 2005, offered a more caustic vision, searching her relationship with her daughter for moments she wrong-footed herself while revealing her own declining health. In the process she developed a late style all her own — incantatory and poetic but never (God forbid) sentimental.

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joan didion famous essays

Matt Brennan is a Los Angeles Times’ deputy editor for entertainment and arts. Born in the Boston area, educated at USC and an adoptive New Orleanian for nearly 10 years, he returned to Los Angeles in 2019 as the newsroom’s television editor. He previously served as TV editor at Paste Magazine, and his writing has also appeared in Indiewire, Slate, Deadspin and numerous other publications.

joan didion famous essays

Boris Kachka is the books editor of the Los Angeles Times and the author, most recently, of “Becoming a Producer.”

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Beyond the Books: Joan Didion’s Essays, Profiles and Criticism

The author of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem,” “The White Album” and “Play It as It Lays” was a prolific writer for The Times.

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joan didion famous essays

By Tina Jordan

Joan Didion, who died on Thursday at 87, is best known for her essay collections — “ Slouching Towards Bethlehem ,” “ The White Album ” and “ After Henry ,” to name a few — though she also wrote blazingly original narrative nonfiction (“ Miami ,” “ The Year of Magical Thinking ,” “ Salvador ”) and novels (“ Play It as It Lays ,” “ A Book of Common Prayer ”). Her work for The New York Times is as eclectic and insightful as you might imagine, ranging from a profile of Joan Baez to a review of John Cheever’s “Falconer.”

‘“Scum,” hissed an old man with a snap-on bow tie.’

Didion’s 1966 profile of Joan Baez and the community opposition to the Institute for the Study of Nonviolence — the folk singer’s school in California’s Carmel Valley — is a classic. “‘Scum,’ hissed an old man with a snap-on bow tie who had identified himself as ‘a veteran of two wars’ and who is a regular at such meetings. ‘ Spaniel .’ He seemed to be referring to the length of Miss Baez’s hair, and was trying to get her attention by tapping with his walking stick, but her eyes did not flicker from the rostrum.”

‘She holds the mind’s other guests in ardent contempt.’

In a 1971 review of Doris Lessing’s novel, “ Briefing for a Descent Into Hell ,” Didion wrote, “To read a great deal of Doris Lessing over a short span of time is to feel that the original hound of heaven has commandeered the attic. She holds the mind’s other guests in ardent contempt. She appears for meals only to dismiss the household’s own preoccupations with writing well as decadent.”

‘Thin raincoats on bitter nights’

Didion’s fiery words lit up this 1972 essay on the women’s movement : “To read the theorists of the women’s movement was to think not of Mary Wollstonecraft but of Margaret Fuller at her most high‐minded, of rushing position papers off to mimeo and drinking tea from paper cups in lieu of eating lunch; of thin raincoats on bitter nights. If the family was the last fortress of capitalism, then let us abolish the family. If the necessity for conventional reproduction of the species seemed unfair to women, then let us transcend, via technology, ‘the very organization of nature,’ the oppression, as Shulamith Firestone saw it, ‘that goes back through recorded history to the animal kingdom itself.’”

A feminist reading list, compiled by Didion, accompanied the essay.

‘Images that shimmer around the edges’

“ Why I Write ” was adapted from a lecture Didion gave at the University of California at Berkeley. In the 1976 essay, she explained, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. Why did the oil refineries around Carquinez Straits seem sinister to me in the summer of 1956? Why have the night lights in the bevatron burned in my mind for twenty years? What is going on in these pictures in my mind? When I talk about pictures in my mind I am talking, quite specifically, about images that shimmer around the edges.”

‘He killed his brother, and who cares ’

Didion’s 1977 review of “ Falconer, ” by John Cheever, was particularly sharp. “I have every expectation that many people will read ‘Falconer’ as another Cheever story about a brainwashed husband who lacked energy for the modern world, so he killed his brother and who cares ,” she wrote. “But let me tell you: It is not, and Cheever cares.”

‘Human voices fade out, trail off, like skywriting.’

In her 1979 review of Norman Mailer’s book about Gary Gilmore, “ The Executioner’s Song ,” Didion wrote, “The very subject of ‘The Executioner’s Song’ is that vast emptiness at the center of the Western experience, a nihilism antithetical not only to literature but to most other forms of human endeavor, a dread so close to zero that human voices fade out, trail off, like skywriting. Beneath what Mailer calls ‘the immense blue of the strong sky of the American West,’ under that immense blue which dominates ‘The Executioner’s Song,’ not too much makes a difference.”

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Read 12 Masterful Essays by Joan Didion for Free Online, Spanning Her Career From 1965 to 2013

in Literature , Writing | January 14th, 2014 3 Comments

joan didion famous essays

Image by David Shankbone, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

In a clas­sic essay of Joan Didion’s, “Good­bye to All That,” the nov­el­ist and writer breaks into her narrative—not for the first or last time—to prod her read­er. She rhetor­i­cal­ly asks and answers: “…was any­one ever so young? I am here to tell you that some­one was.” The wry lit­tle moment is per­fect­ly indica­tive of Didion’s unspar­ing­ly iron­ic crit­i­cal voice. Did­ion is a con­sum­mate crit­ic, from Greek kritēs , “a judge.” But she is always fore­most a judge of her­self. An account of Didion’s eight years in New York City, where she wrote her first nov­el while work­ing for Vogue , “Good­bye to All That” fre­quent­ly shifts point of view as Did­ion exam­ines the truth of each state­ment, her prose mov­ing seam­less­ly from delib­er­a­tion to com­men­tary, anno­ta­tion, aside, and apho­rism, like the below:

I want to explain to you, and in the process per­haps to myself, why I no longer live in New York. It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from some­where else, a city only for the very young.

Any­one who has ever loved and left New York—or any life-alter­ing city—will know the pangs of res­ig­na­tion Did­ion cap­tures. These eco­nom­ic times and every oth­er pro­duce many such sto­ries. But Did­ion made some­thing entire­ly new of famil­iar sen­ti­ments. Although her essay has inspired a sub-genre , and a col­lec­tion of breakup let­ters to New York with the same title, the unsen­ti­men­tal pre­ci­sion and com­pact­ness of Didion’s prose is all her own.

The essay appears in 1967’s Slouch­ing Towards Beth­le­hem , a rep­re­sen­ta­tive text of the lit­er­ary non­fic­tion of the six­ties along­side the work of John McPhee, Ter­ry South­ern, Tom Wolfe, and Hunter S. Thomp­son. In Didion’s case, the empha­sis must be decid­ed­ly on the lit­er­ary —her essays are as skill­ful­ly and imag­i­na­tive­ly writ­ten as her fic­tion and in close con­ver­sa­tion with their autho­r­i­al fore­bears. “Good­bye to All That” takes its title from an ear­li­er mem­oir, poet and crit­ic Robert Graves’ 1929 account of leav­ing his home­town in Eng­land to fight in World War I. Didion’s appro­pri­a­tion of the title shows in part an iron­ic under­cut­ting of the mem­oir as a seri­ous piece of writ­ing.

And yet she is per­haps best known for her work in the genre. Pub­lished almost fifty years after Slouch­ing Towards Beth­le­hem , her 2005 mem­oir The Year of Mag­i­cal Think­ing is, in poet Robert Pinsky’s words , a “traveler’s faith­ful account” of the stun­ning­ly sud­den and crush­ing per­son­al calami­ties that claimed the lives of her hus­band and daugh­ter sep­a­rate­ly. “Though the mate­r­i­al is lit­er­al­ly ter­ri­ble,” Pin­sky writes, “the writ­ing is exhil­a­rat­ing and what unfolds resem­bles an adven­ture nar­ra­tive: a forced expe­di­tion into those ‘cliffs of fall’ iden­ti­fied by Hop­kins.” He refers to lines by the gift­ed Jesuit poet Ger­ard Man­ley Hop­kins that Did­ion quotes in the book: “O the mind, mind has moun­tains; cliffs of fall / Fright­ful, sheer, no-man-fath­omed. Hold them cheap / May who ne’er hung there.”

The near­ly unim­peach­ably author­i­ta­tive ethos of Didion’s voice con­vinces us that she can fear­less­ly tra­verse a wild inner land­scape most of us triv­i­al­ize, “hold cheap,” or can­not fath­om. And yet, in a 1978 Paris Review inter­view , Didion—with that tech­ni­cal sleight of hand that is her casu­al mastery—called her­self “a kind of appren­tice plumber of fic­tion, a Cluny Brown at the writer’s trade.” Here she invokes a kind of arche­type of lit­er­ary mod­esty (John Locke, for exam­ple, called him­self an “under­labour­er” of knowl­edge) while also fig­ur­ing her­self as the win­some hero­ine of a 1946 Ernst Lubitsch com­e­dy about a social climber plumber’s niece played by Jen­nifer Jones, a char­ac­ter who learns to thumb her nose at pow­er and priv­i­lege.

A twist of fate—interviewer Lin­da Kuehl’s death—meant that Did­ion wrote her own intro­duc­tion to the Paris Review inter­view, a very unusu­al occur­rence that allows her to assume the role of her own inter­preter, offer­ing iron­ic prefa­to­ry remarks on her self-under­stand­ing. After the intro­duc­tion, it’s dif­fi­cult not to read the inter­view as a self-inter­ro­ga­tion. Asked about her char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of writ­ing as a “hos­tile act” against read­ers, Did­ion says, “Obvi­ous­ly I lis­ten to a read­er, but the only read­er I hear is me. I am always writ­ing to myself. So very pos­si­bly I’m com­mit­ting an aggres­sive and hos­tile act toward myself.”

It’s a curi­ous state­ment. Didion’s cut­ting wit and fear­less vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty take in seem­ing­ly all—the expans­es of her inner world and polit­i­cal scan­dals and geopo­lit­i­cal intrigues of the out­er, which she has dis­sect­ed for the bet­ter part of half a cen­tu­ry. Below, we have assem­bled a selec­tion of Didion’s best essays online. We begin with one from Vogue :

“On Self Respect” (1961)

Didion’s 1979 essay col­lec­tion The White Album brought togeth­er some of her most tren­chant and search­ing essays about her immer­sion in the coun­ter­cul­ture, and the ide­o­log­i­cal fault lines of the late six­ties and sev­en­ties. The title essay begins with a gem­like sen­tence that became the title of a col­lec­tion of her first sev­en vol­umes of non­fic­tion : “We tell our­selves sto­ries in order to live.” Read two essays from that col­lec­tion below:

“ The Women’s Move­ment ” (1972)

“ Holy Water ” (1977)

Did­ion has main­tained a vig­or­ous pres­ence at the New York Review of Books since the late sev­en­ties, writ­ing pri­mar­i­ly on pol­i­tics. Below are a few of her best known pieces for them:

“ Insid­er Base­ball ” (1988)

“ Eye on the Prize ” (1992)

“ The Teach­ings of Speak­er Gin­grich ” (1995)

“ Fixed Opin­ions, or the Hinge of His­to­ry ” (2003)

“ Pol­i­tics in the New Nor­mal Amer­i­ca ” (2004)

“ The Case of There­sa Schi­a­vo ” (2005)

“ The Def­er­en­tial Spir­it ” (2013)

“ Cal­i­for­nia Notes ” (2016)

Did­ion con­tin­ues to write with as much style and sen­si­tiv­i­ty as she did in her first col­lec­tion, her voice refined by a life­time of expe­ri­ence in self-exam­i­na­tion and pierc­ing crit­i­cal appraisal. She got her start at Vogue in the late fifties, and in 2011, she pub­lished an auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal essay there that returns to the theme of “yearn­ing for a glam­orous, grown up life” that she explored in “Good­bye to All That.” In “ Sable and Dark Glass­es ,” Didion’s gaze is stead­ier, her focus this time not on the naïve young woman tem­pered and hard­ened by New York, but on her­self as a child “deter­mined to bypass child­hood” and emerge as a poised, self-con­fi­dent 24-year old sophisticate—the per­fect New York­er she nev­er became.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Joan Did­ion Reads From New Mem­oir, Blue Nights, in Short Film Direct­ed by Grif­fin Dunne

30 Free Essays & Sto­ries by David Fos­ter Wal­lace on the Web

10 Free Sto­ries by George Saun­ders, Author of Tenth of Decem­ber , “The Best Book You’ll Read This Year”

Read 18 Short Sto­ries From Nobel Prize-Win­ning Writer Alice Munro Free Online

Josh Jones  is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at  @jdmagness

by Josh Jones | Permalink | Comments (3) |

joan didion famous essays

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Comments (3), 3 comments so far.

“In a clas­sic essay of Joan Didion’s, “Good­bye to All That,” the nov­el­ist and writer breaks into her narrative—not for the first or last time,..”

Dead link to the essay

It should be “Slouch­ing Towards Beth­le­hem,” with the “s” on Towards.

Most of the Joan Did­ion Essay links have pay­walls.

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Joan Didion: A guide to five of her most influential books

An overview of the Didion books you'll revisit for the rest of your days

Headshot of Ella Alexander

Joan Didion inspired countless writers and readers to put pen to paper and write about the world as they see it. Her unique style, restrained yet honest, affecting yet never sentimental, is peerless. Famed for her incisive depictions of American life and personal journalism, she never wasted a word, nor a character. Her seminal essay for Vogue , On Self-Respect first published in 1961, was written not to a word count or a line count, but to an exact character count.

Didion's work chronicled the mood of the '60s, the highs and the lows, as well as the human experience in general - few writers have explored the subject of death and loss with as much insight, control or candour. Her skill lay not only in her style of prose, but her ability to astutely observe the behaviour of others. She saw what others missed.

Here, we celebrate five of her most influential books.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem, 1968

joan didion books

Although Slouching Towards Bethlehem wasn't Didion's first book ( Run, River of 1963 was), it was the one that cemented her as a prominent writer. A collection of essays about California in the '60s, her work explores the beauty and the ugliness of the decade, from the hippy community of San Francisco's Haight Ashbury to a woman accused of murdering her husband. Considered an essential portrait of American life in the '60s, Slouching Towards Bethlehem received positive attention as soon as it was published and its fandom has only grown over the decades since.

The White Album, 1979

joan didion books

Another collection of essays, The White Album deals with the late '60s to late '70s and the aftermath of the former. She studies the Women's Movement, shares her psychiatric report, parties with Janis Joplin and visits Linda Kasabian, who served as a lookout while members of the Manson family murdered Sharon Tate, in prison. These diverse essays see Didion capture the anxiety of the era and try to make sense of the Manson murders, the event many believe caused the '60s to end abruptly.

Where I Was From, 2003

joan didion books

Didion revisits the California she grew up in, specifically Sacramento County where she lived with her family, but also the state more generally. She questions the history she was taught, debunks Californian mythology and traces her ancestors and their journey moving west. She writes candidly about her upbringing, while exploring class issues with nuance. Where I Was From is one of Didion's lesser-known books, but shouldn't be.

The Year of Magical Thinking, 2005

joan didion books

Written in the aftermath of her husband's sudden death, The Year of Magical Thinking is an account of loss and grief - and the ways in which it can drive us to insanity. Hers was one of the first books to talk about bereavement beyond funerals, tracking the days and months that follow with her signature detachment. She writes about her own 'magical thinking' - how she can't bring herself to get rid of her husband's shoes because she thought he might need them when he returns. It sounds like pure misery, but Didion's deadpan tone impressively stops it from being so.

Blue Nights, 2011

joan didion books

Just a month before The Year of Magical Thinking was published, Didion's daughter, Quintana died of acute pancreatitis, aged 39. Blue Nights - a devastating account of her daughter's life and death - challenges how much tragedy one person can take. She laments over the passage of time and worries about growing older, lonelier. This is a heartbreaking tome, but solace for anyone who has ever faced the incomparable loss of losing a child.

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6 Essays By Joan Didion You Should Know

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Joan Didion is lauded as one of the best literary journalists to emerge from the New Journalism school in the ’60s, among Tom Wolfe , Terry Southern and Hunter S. Thompson, and one of California’s wittiest contemporary writers . Best known for her sharply reported stories that service frequently dystopian and despondent cultural commentary, even Didion’s more journalistic works are in part personal essay. It’s precisely her authorial presence that lends credence, honesty and depth to her work. Her subjectivity makes her observations all the more resonant, and in a way, more accurate too. Here’s a look at some of the California writer’s greatest hits.

View all trips, ‘some dreamers of the golden dream’.

‘This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country,’ the essay begins. Making good on her promise, this piece reports a lascivious tale of adultery and murder in San Bernardino County in 1966. In true Didion form, however, atmosphere and place play characters just as important as the perpetrators and, in that way, this piece is about much more than the details of a single crime.

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‘john wayne: a love song’.

Though this essay presents itself as an ode the great American frontiersman of the silver screen, it charts a loss of innocence – personal, though perhaps also cultural – against Wayne’s larger than life persona . ‘In a world we understand early to be characterized by venality and doubt and paralyzing ambiguities, he suggested another world… a place where a man could move free, could make his own code and live by it.’

joan didion famous essays

‘On Keeping a Notebook’

Having kept a notebook from the age of five, Didion considers the compulsion to capture our lives. She writes, ‘however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable ‘I.” This observation seems especially fitting for a writer who candidly reports through the filter of the self.

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Cover for Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem

‘On Self Respect’

This philosophical musing pays homage to the wrestling with the self that perhaps writers know best. It was first published in Vogue magazine in 1961, where it can be found in its original form . ‘To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves – there lies the great, the singular power of self-respect.’

‘The Santa Ana’

Didion calls upon the eerie desert mythology of the Santa Anas, the wicked winds that brings a tangible unease and tension to Los Angeles whenever they blow through the city. In this essay, LA is not always sunny as it’s so often portrayed. In this strange ode to place, Didion writes, ‘the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The winds shows us how close to the edge we are.’

‘Goodbye to All That’

In one of Didion’s most known essays, she recounts a love affair with New York City that calls upon the city’s deeply arresting aura with delicious turns of phrase: ‘I would stay in New York, I told him, just six months, and I could see the Brooklyn Bridge from my window. As it turned out the bridge was the Triborough, and I stayed eight years.’

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Joan Didion’s best books, from essays to fiction

On Thursday, it was announced that prolific writer Joan Didion had died at the age of 87.

An executive at her publisher, Knopf, confirmed the author's death to TODAY in an email and said that Didion passed away at her home in Manhattan from Parkinson's disease.

Here, we round up seven necessary reads by the late author, who was best known for work on mourning and essays and magazine contributions that captured the American experience.

Here are the best books by Joan Didion:

'the year of magical thinking' (2005).

Dunne, Didion, & Daughter

Probably her best known work, this gutting work of non-fiction profiles Didion's experience grieving her husband John Gregory Dunne while caring for comatose daughter Quintana Roo Dunne.

"The Year of Magical Thinking" quickly became an iconic representation of mourning, capturing the sorrow and ennui of that period. It won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Awards, and was later adapted into a play starring Vanessa Redgrave.

'Blue Nights' (2011)

joan didion famous essays

A continuation of what is started in "The Year of Magical Thinking," this poignant 2011 work of non-fiction features personal and heartbreaking memories of Quintana, who passed away at the age of 39, not long after Didion's husband died.

"It is a searing inquiry into loss and a melancholy meditation on mortality and time,” wrote book critic Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times.

'Slouching Towards Bethlehem' (1968)

joan didion famous essays

Didion's first collection of nonfiction writing is revered as an essential portrait of America — particularly California — in the 1960s.

It focuses on her experience growing up in the Sunshine state, icons of that time John Wayne and Howard Hughes, and the essence of Haight-Ashbury, a neighborhood in San Francisco that became the heart of the counterculture movement.

'The White Album' (1979) 

joan didion famous essays

A reflective collection of essays, "The White Album" explores several of the same topics Didion touched on in "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," this time focusing on the history and politics of California in the late 1960s and early '70s. Its matter-of-fact and intimate stories give the reader a feeling of what California and the atmosphere was like during that time period.

'Play it as it Lays' (1970)

joan didion famous essays

Set during a time before Roe vs. Wade, this terrifying and at times disturbing novel profiles a struggling actress living in Los Angeles whose life begins to unravel after she has a back-alley abortion.

"(Didion) writes with a razor, carving her characters out of her perceptions with strokes so swift and economical that each scene ends almost before the reader is aware of it, and yet the characters go on bleeding afterward," wrote book critic John Leonard for the New York times.

'Miami' (1987)

Joan Didion Speaks At The College Of Marin

A great example of Didion's journalistic work, "Miami" paints a portrait of life for Cuban exiles in the south Florida city.

Didion writes a stunning and passionate page-turner set against the backdrop of Miami’s decline caused by economic and political changes with the refugee immigration from Cuba after Fidel Castro’s rise to power.

Alexander Kacala is a reporter and editor at TODAY Digital and NBC OUT. He loves writing about pop culture, trending topics, LGBTQ issues, style and all things drag. His favorite celebrity profiles include Cher — who said their interview was one of the most interesting of her career — as well as Kylie Minogue, Candice Bergen, Patti Smith and RuPaul. He is based in New York City and his favorite film is “Pretty Woman.”

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Joan Didion's Biggest Pop Culture Contributions, from Slouching Towards Bethlehem to A Star Is Born

Remembering the pioneering writer and journalist, who died at age 87 on Dec. 23

Remembering Joan Didion

"It's easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends." So begins Joan Didion's perhaps most famous essay, "Goodbye to All That," a seminal text for anyone who has loved or left New York. Didion died of complications from Parkinson's disease on Dec. 23 at her home in Manhattan , according to the New York Times . She was 87.

It's hard — impossible, really — to see where her cultural impact ends. An author, screenwriter and journalist for nearly six decades, her observations on place, politics, grief and more defined an era and continue to shape generations of writers. Here, we've rounded up some of her most essential works and moments from her lasting legacy.

Run River was Didion's first novel, written while interning at Vogue in the 1960s. But it was Slouching Towards Bethlehem , a collection of essays published in 1968, that established Didion's reputation as a keen observer and storyteller. Culled from her work for the Saturday Evening Post and New York Times Magazine , the essays capture the essence of her native California in the '60s, and glimmer with essential truths on what it means to be a writer and a person. "On Keeping a Notebook" and "Goodbye to All That" shine particularly bright.

On the heels of Slouching Towards Bethlehem , Didion published her second novel, 1970's Play It As It Lays . The blisteringly elegant, sparse and deeply disturbing prose is as sharp and haunting today as it was 40 years ago as it tells the story of a young woman coming undone in a California psychiatric hospital after her husband forces her to get an abortion.

A film version starring Tuesday Weld and Anthony Perkins was released in 1972.

Didion built her reputation on her books of essays, but in those essays, she would admit that her work screenwriting alongside husband John Dunne was ultimately what paid the bills. The pair's most successful screenplay was their rewrite of the 1976 version of A Star Is Born , starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson.

Dunne and Didion's also collaborated on 1996's Up Close and Personal , a film starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer. (Another of their major screenplays: 1981's True Confessions, starring Robert De Niro and Robert Duvall.)

Dunne chronicled the experience of co-writing Up Close and Personal in his book Monster: Living Off the Big Screen , in which he also explores how the pair found the process of screenwriting to be stifling and frustrating.

2005's The Year of Magical Thinking is one of the most poignant explorations of grief in modern literature. The book, which won the National Book Award for Nonfiction and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Biography/Autobiography, chronicles the year after the sudden death of Didion's husband and longtime collaborator, John Gregory Dunne. Dunne died on Dec. 30, 2003, of a heart attack, while mid-conversation with Didion. His death came just days after their daughter Quintana Roo, had been put into a coma after an infection turned into septic shock; Quintana underwent several more hospitalizations, and died a few months before the book was published in 2005, at age 39.

"Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends," she writes.

Here, the late literary icon is pictured with her husband, their daughter and a family dog.

The wrenching, beautiful volume digs into the power of language as "magical thinking," as well as grief as a physical place, somewhere both prosaic and profound. "These people who have lost someone look naked because they think themselves invisible. I myself felt invisible for a period of time, incorporeal," she writes. "I seemed to have crossed one of those legendary rivers that divide the living from the dead, entered a place in which I could be seen only by those who were themselves recently bereaved."

The book was adapted into a theatrical production starring Vanessa Redgrave in 2007.

In 2012, President Obama bestowed the National Medal of Arts and Humanities to the writer. Didion was honored for "her mastery of style in writing, exploring the culture around us and exposing the depths of sorrow."

We've often had the pleasure of reading Joan Didion, but 2017 brought a welcome opportunity to watch and listen to her: the writer's nephew, actor Griffin Dunne, directed The Center Will Not Hold , a documentary about her life and career, brimming with archival footage and interviews with the legend herself. The Netflix documentary's title comes from the terse and tactile first line in the essay "Slouching Towards Bethlehem."

Didion was the rare writer whose appearance was nearly as iconic as her work, and her inimitable style was tapped for a Céline ad in 2015, when the author was 80. The ads made a major splash online, but Didion was unimpressed: "I don't have any clue" about the sensation, she told The New York Times.

Didion's most recent collection of essays, Let Me Tell You What I Mean , was published amid the pandemic earlier this year and features 12 pieces, spanning 1968 to 2000. Perhaps most notably, it includes her formative piece "Why I Write," a title she cheekily notes that she stole from George Orwell. The piece, adapted from a Regents' Lecture given at the University of California at Berkeley, has become a primary text for aspiring and established writers.

"Had my credentials been in order I would never have become a writer," she says. "Had I been blessed with even limited access to my own mind there would have been no reason to write. 1 write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear."

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Joan Didion sitting inside a white Stingray car, with cigarette, in 1970.

Joan Didion, in her own words: 23 of the best quotes

The Californian author became the ultimate literary celebrity for her journalistic style. Here are some of her best quotes on writing, love, ageing and fear, plus a selection of essays

Joan Didion, who has died aged 87 , inspired writers and readers for decades. Her journalism, memoirs, and cultural and political commentary made her a unique chronicler of 20th-century culture.

Here are 23 quotes that encapsulate her writing:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live. – The White Album (1979)
Character – the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life – is the source from which self-respect springs. – Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)
I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear. – Why I Write (essay originally published in the New York Times Book Review in 1976)
To free us from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves – there lies the great, singular power of self-respect. – Self-respect: Its Source, Its Power (essay originally published in Vogue in 1961)
You have to pick the places you don’t walk away from. – A Book of Common Prayer (1977)
The fancy that extraterrestrial life is by definition of a higher order than our own is one that soothes all children, and many writers. – The White Album (1979)
[O]ne of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before. – Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)
There’s a point when you go with what you’ve got. Or you don’t go. – a The Paris Review interview (1978)
I did not always think he was right nor did he always think I was right but we were each the person the other trusted. – The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)
Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends. – The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), which explores grief following the death of her husband
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. – On keeping a notebook, from Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)
I know what the fear is. The fear is not for what is lost. What is lost is already in the wall. What is lost is already behind the locked door. The fear is for what is still to be lost. – Blue Nights (2011)
There is no real way to deal with everything we lose. — Where I Was From (2003)
We are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all. – The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)
Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. – The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)

On literature and writing

In time of trouble, I had been trained since childhood, read, learn, work it up, go to the literature. Information was control. – The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)
I am still committed to the idea that the ability to think for one’s self depends upon one’s mastery of the language. – Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)
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. – Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)
You get the sense that it’s possible simply to go through life noticing things and writing them down and that this is OK, it’s worth doing. That the seemingly insignificant things that most of us spend our days noticing are really significant, have meaning, and tell us something. – The Paris Review interview (2006).
Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and, just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are. – Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)
New York was no mere city. It was instead an infinitely romantic notion, the mysterious nexus of all love and money and power, the shining and perishable dream itself. – Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)
A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image. – The White Album (1979)
I’m not telling you to make the world better, because I don’t think that progress is necessarily part of the package. I’m just telling you to live in it. Not just to endure it, not just to suffer it, not just to pass through it, but to live in it. To look at it. To try to get the picture. To live recklessly. To take chances. To make your own work and take pride in it. To seize the moment. And if you ask me why you should bother to do that, I could tell you that the grave’s a fine and private place, but none I think do there embrace. Nor do they sing there, or write, or argue, or see the tidal bore on the Amazon, or touch their children. And that’s what there is to do and get it while you can and good luck at it.” – UC Riverside commencement address (1975).

Which are your favourite Didion quotes or books? In what ways did her work inspire you? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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