I was reading another book, ‘The Daily Stoic’ by Ryan Holiday and he referenced a quote from Joan Didion’s ‘On Self-Respect’. I wanted to read the entire essay, so I downloaded the e-book of ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’. The first two essays I read from the collection were ‘On Self-Respect’ and ‘On Keeping a Notebook’. The prose is so good I was amazed and demoralized. How could anyone write this well and how could a novice writer ever hope to match this? I closed the collection and spent a few days in a funk. Maybe I should give up this writing dream.
How is it some writers inspire us to write, and some so set us back? For me, reading Tolstoy or DH Lawrence makes me want to open up Scrivener and start pouring out words. I can go for hours after just reading a chapter of either. Or most novelists, for that matter. But Virginia Woolf, whose work I admire, can take the wind out of my sails, although I don’t aspire to write stream of consciousness. James Allen’s ‘As A Man Thinketh’ inspires, as does Dorothea Brande. George Eliot, who’s ‘Middlemarch’ is one of the five best novels ever, leaves me feeling inadequate. John Gardner makes me feel like a failing student, as does Sol Stein. But William Zinsser, Anne Lamott, Annie Dillard and Anne Tyler all make me feel it is possible. Not easy, but possible.
A few days later, I picked up the Didion essays again, and realized I had started with the two best works. Slouching Towards Bethlehem left me a little cold. Didion takes a journalist’s eye to 1967 Haight-Ashbury San Francisco. The moral corruption was noted. The rape was matter of fact. A five-year-old given LSD. It was good to see it end, both the essay and Haight-Ashbury.
I enjoyed some of the essays about the California central valley, a part of the state away from the glitz of San Francisco or LA. But some of the name dropping left me wondering who she was talking about, and I was too tired to Google them.
Didion was one of the greats. But human, and fallible. That I know I can emulate.
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June 4, 2023
Book review of Joan Didion’s ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’