This little book is one of the Vintage Readers that were released in the early 2000s. As pointed out on the back cover, this is a small collection of Joan Didion’s essays that are a good introduction to her work. The essays cover politics, crime, the war in El Salvador, crime and corruption in Miami, the culture of New York (including a fascinating essay on the Central Park Jogger case and its impact), and, at the end, an essay from 2002 on the after effects of 9/11 and the subsequent ‘war on terror’. It’s a wide range of subjects, but they work well together, given that in each essay Didion explores or analyses something ‘bad’, something that made a real cultural and social impact in some way. I particularly enjoyed the essays on New York, and ‘Clinton Agonistes’, from the book Political Fictions (2002), which covers the Monica Lewinsky scandal, its media coverage, the impeachment of Bill Clinton, and the cultural impact of the whole situation. In this essay Didion reminds us of the absurdity of most news coverage, particularly when it comes to politics and sex (together and separately), and how the reactions of those in the public eye, both in and outside of politics, has such an influence on the general population. Reading this essay in 2017, you can really see the lasting impact of the scandal, and its influence on how America deals with the personal lives of those in power to this day.
Previously it hasn’t mattered to me if I have read Didion’s articles that were written years before I was born, about things I’ve never experienced – I’ve still enjoyed them and found them interesting. This time, however, I felt more disconnected from the subject matter, and felt that I would have benefitted from some background knowledge, especially about El Salvador and Miami, two places I know nothing about. I engaged more with the New York essays, as well as the one about Clinton, as I had more of a frame of reference for those, and had heard of the Central Park Jogger case. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed Didion’s writing, her long and complicated sentences, as well as her acerbic charm and scathing criticisms. Every time I read her work I feel like I learn something and expand my horizons a little.
The Vintage Readers are intended to serve as introductions or overviews of writers, and I think this works well for Didion. I think it would have made sense to include some more of her writing on California, however, as this is where she really excels. Perhaps something from Slouching Towards Bethlehem, like her writing about Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco in the 1960s. But, having said that, if you’re more interested in politics and the later 20th century, this book would certainly be a good introduction to Joan Didion.
I’m glad I picked up Vintage Didion at Skoob back in 2015, and I’m glad I read it. It has inspired me to read more of Didion’s books, and I have in fact just bought a copy of her most recent book, South and West: From a Notebook. What are your favourite Didion essays and books?
Published by Vintage in 2004.