Five Unforgettable Joan Didion Books to Read to Understand Her Legacy
Joan Didion, who died late last year, leaves behind a prolific and unmatched writing legacy. The literary icon published 19 books spanning fiction and nonfiction, including unflinching political criticism, depictions of Hollywood glamor and extravagance, and deeply personal memoirs.
This wide-ranging subject matter helped to establish Didion as a trailblazer among her peers, but so did her writing style. Though she didn’t define herself as a poet, Didion’s approach to writing stands out as strikingly poetic: She described herself as most focused on “the structure of a sentence” and how this careful arrangement reflects “the picture in your mind.” In other words, Didion’s work devotes itself to innovative, highly intentional syntax, as well as vivid, well-crafted imagery. Among her many works, these five books provide an essential introduction.
Published in 1968
Slouching Toward Bethlehem marks Didion’s first collection of nonfiction, making it a classic look back at her long career. Taking place largely in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, the book vibrantly depicts this bustling area, known at the time as the height of the counterculture movement. While inviting readers into record shops, dive bars, and hotel rooms, Didion makes profound points about good and evil, addiction, and social alienation along the way.
Published in 1970
Set mostly in late 1960s Los Angeles—but also wandering across Nevada, New York City, and the Southern California desert—Play As It Lays is Didion’s debut novel and a compelling, honest look at life before and after a breakdown. The protagonist, Maria, grapples with a failing acting career and marriage, as well as upheaval in her social life. Play As It Lays offers commentary on mental health, motherhood, and friendship, as well as what we cling to when life seems to be falling apart.
Published in 1979
Described as both classic reporting and classic autobiography, The White Album counts among Didion’s most famous works and as an example of melding the personal and political. Within its pages, Didion chronicles the turbulent and change-making 1960s, writing about Charles Manson, the Black Panthers, and the growth of American consumerism, along with other key trends and figures. Far from reading as a history textbook, The White Album pairs this cultural upheaval with confessional reflection and vulnerability.
Published in 2003
Where I Was From gives a masterclass in place and setting, making it a must-have on any writer’s list. With this book, Didion again blurs genre, weaving together history, memoir, and lyric essay. Above all, Where I Was From examines California—Didion’s birthplace—from many different angles, considering everything from the evolution of the railroad to the state’s upholding of the prison industrial system. As Didion takes readers through California’s past, present, and potential futures, she also steps into her own personal time machine, paying tribute to ancestors and family lineage.
Published in 2005
Winner of the National Book Award and listed as one of the top 100 books of the 21st century by The Guardian, The Year of Magical Thinking just might be Didion’s most revered work. The nonfiction memoir presents a visceral journey through grief, recounting the death of Didion’s husband and the hospitalization and chronic illness of their daughter. Unable to find many books she thought honestly reflected grief, Didion created an interwoven diary, guide, and encyclopedia by sharing both her own experience with the emotion and its documented medical and psychological impacts.
Bonus writing prompt: Didion took inspiration from reporting and current events, in many ways straddling the line between journalist and creative writer. She also considered research an integral part of her process. Dive into the history of an event, person, or social phenomenon that has always fascinated you, and see what creative work it can lead to.