There's nothing like cozying up with a good book over the holidays, so we've curated a reading list of America's literary greats. Joan Didion is one of the most iconic authors of our time, and her breadth of work captures American life in a way few others have come close to. In 2017, Netflix released a new documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, which paints a more intimate portrait of the author (who turns 85 this December) and is directed by her nephew, actor and filmmaker Griffin Dunne. So when you find yourself needing an escape, what better time to revisit some of Didion's most celebrated works?
Keep reading for the best Joan Didion books to read before you watch the Netflix documentary.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem
In a collection of essays, Didion describes her experiences in California during the '60s. Time says, "Arriving one year after the Summer of Love, the book, and its title essay, firmly punctured the pervasive myths about the counterculture. . . . One of the most compelling books about ’60s America.”
Play It as It Lays
One of Didion's most popular works of fiction, this book is a raw look at American life in the late 1960s. "Simple, restrained, intelligent, well-structured, witty, irresistibly relentless, forthright in diction, and untainted by the sensational, Play It As It Lays is a book of outstanding literary quality," states Library Journal.
The White Album
Much like Slouching Towards Bethlehem, this book focuses on life and politics in California through a collection of essays previously published in magazines like Life and Esquire. Rolling Stone's glowing review claims, “No one describes the cultural reverberations of the Manson murders as acutely as Joan Didion. . . . [She] weaves subtly horrifying details to reflect the strange fear that loomed over Los Angeles County in the months following.”
A collection of journalistic essays, this book delves into the veins of America from New York to Washington to L.A. Boston Globe says, "Joan Didion has great instincts for metaphor. She can take an ordinary object . . . and make it as ominous as Hitchcock."
South and West
This new book is a collection of excerpts from Didion's never-before-seen notebooks. According to the Los Angeles Review of Books, South and West is “compelling . . . rooted utterly in a past now all but lost to us, while also incredibly timely and relevant”.
A Book of Common Prayer
This novel explores human behavior through personal and political tragedies in the fictional Central American country of Boca Grande. Newsday gushes, "A novelist with important things to say about the dislocations of our time.... Joan Didion is stellar."
This book essay is a real-life manifestation of A Book of Common Prayer, where Didion describes El Salvador at the height of its civil war. The New York Times Book Review quips, "Salvador shines with enlightening observation, and its language is lean and precise, in short what we have come to expect from Ms. Didion."
We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live: Collected Nonfiction
For a range of Didion's nonfiction work, this collection includes a variety of pieces from journalism to memoir to cultural critique, including everything printed in After Henry. The New York Times raves, “Her intelligence is as honed as ever . . . Her vision is ice-water clear . . . Didion has captured the mood of America.”
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