Writing about writing honestly seems a bit odd to me. That may be a strange opinion though, considering I write about music, which has famously been compared to dancing about architecture. You’re taking one art form and using it to express a completely different art form. I can understand the peculiarities of it, but using one art form to express that very same art form seems indulgently meta-textual. But it seems fun, and book criticism is a thing, too. I’m not a book critic by any means if you can already tell.
As I mentioned in my earnest treatise on Waluigi, I made a promise (?) in my first post to write about music, movies, video games, books, and Waluigi. I’ve written about each of those topics except for books. So, I figured my latest newsletter would be dedicated to a book, Joan Didion’s The White Album, which I just finished a couple of days ago. Similar to my post about First Cow, in which I said that I have no idea how to write about movies, I also have no idea how to write about books (seriously, thanks for coming out tonight). But the purpose of this newsletter is pure fun, so that’s what I’m going to do here.
I finally decided to read Joan Didion upon receiving two indirect recommendations from people who aren’t my friends but I wish were: Phoebe Bridgers and Marcelo Hernandez Castillo. I was reading an excellent profile on Bridgers by the legendary Amanda Petrusich in The New Yorker, and the indie-rock artist mentioned that she’d been enjoying reading Didion lately. “Hmm, I’ve never read Didion. Maybe I should,” I thought to myself. Approximately a couple of weeks following that moment, I was reading Castillo’s beautiful memoir Children of the Land, and he briefly discussed his admiration of Didion’s writing and how she pulls you into her universe. “Hmm, I’ve never read Didion. Maybe I should,” I thought to myself again. Two books after finishing Castillo’s, here we are. I’ve now read The White Album, and I loved it. I gave it 5 stars, a perfect score, on Goodreads, which is something I do only once per decade á la Pitchfork.
The White Album is a collection of essays, released in 1979, that had already been published in numerous magazines, including Esquire and Life. Throughout its 223 pages, Didion writes about literally whatever she wants (not much unlike this newsletter actually, but she’s a lot more interesting and an astronomically better writer). She writes about her appreciation for dams (more on this later), spending days in Malibu, hanging out with The Doors, visiting Bogotá, and the history of shopping malls. She doesn’t confine herself to one topic. And she doesn’t confine her knowledge to a handful, either. She writes expertly on a wide gamut of subject areas, and it seems like she knows everything about everyone, and that’s what makes her so compelling to read.
Didion will drop cultural references in nearly paragraph, and she assumes you’re going to understand all of them, but, frankly, I understood very few of them. Now, this might be because I am simply not cool (stop, everyone, just hear me out!), but I actually enjoyed not understanding the wealth of material she draws from. It feels like, as Castillo wrote, she were pulling me into her personal universe, like she were inviting me as a close friend into her orbit of ideas, places, and people. At this point, you might be asking, “Grant, give us textual evidence from the book to provide strength for your argument,” to which I respond, “No.” There are two reasons I refuse to do such a thing. 1. I’m tired of writing academic papers, and citing a book makes me feel like I’m writing yet another academic paper. This newsletter is purely for fun, so I apologize. 2. You could open any page of The White Album, select a paragraph at random, and understand wholeheartedly what I’m saying here.
What also makes Didion such a great read is that she makes the most droll of topics confusedly riveting. I stated earlier that there is a section of this book devoted to dam infrastructure, an immanently boring topic. Do you know how much dams interest me? Very, very little (I’m sorry to any hydraulic engineers, but also what are you doing here? I don’t know any hydraulic engineers). But the entire time I was reading that section, I was absolutely captivated. Who knew dams could be so fascinating? To answer that question, they are not, but Didion makes them so. I could read her writing on quite almost anything and be perfectly content.
Before I end this rambling post, if you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed that, last week, I tweeted a picture of Didion wearing a floppy hat accompanied with the caption, “Sufjan Stevens - Visions of Didion.” I deleted this tweet because it didn’t realize the vision I was seeking. Stevens is famous for wearing strange hats, and I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if I could find a picture of Joan Didion wearing a funny hat, and caption it ‘Sufjan Stevens - Visions of Didion?’” I tried every variation fathomable. I Googled so many permutations of the phrase “Joan Didion funny hat,” but my efforts proved futile. Hence, “Visions of Didion” lives on, serving a different purpose, filling another void, providing the name for this newsletter post.