Cultural Psyche at the End of the 60's in "The White Album", by Joan Didion - Book Review

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” This has to be one of the great opening lines. As you continue through The White Album, you’ll find many profound lines throughout. Joan Didion’s collection of essays encompasses a ten year period of writing; a supplement to her reporting that is deeply personal and revealing, with keen insights into her own psyche and that of the time. 

Didion’s compositions are carefully arranged, sections include California, women, “sojourns”,  and all infuse the very personal along with a strong sense of culture at the close of the 60’s. Written from 1968 to 1978, Didion provides her reader with a naked truth, self doubt, and the reality of the time. She studies her subjects well - the Los Angeles highway management system, shopping malls, living in Malibu. They are journalistic, yet personal. She begins with the title essay, The White Album. She continues from the opening line, “We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices.” This theme continues throughout her work, providing us with her interpretation and allowing us a glimpse into a knowing wisdom about its plausibility, whether reporting or personal. They are inextricably connected for Didion.

Didion nonchalantly mentions celebrities she spent time with; “I remembering sitting on the cool floor in Irving Penn’s studio and reading…” It was a textbook for a distance learning class she was taking. Her point really had nothing to do with Penn (or with The Doors in another essay); rather, it was simply where she was at the time while working for Vogue and fitting in classwork. Her encounters with celebrities are rote, and she never seems starstruck. Writing about the Los Angeles traffic control center may have held even more interest for her, more of an anomaly in her life, perhaps. 

Through her reporting (starting at Vogue, then Esquire, Life, Saturday Evening Post, among others), Didion builds a deferential rapport with her subjects, whether people or things. Linda Kasabian, a member of the Manson “family” and key witness in his prosecution, was one such subject. In the White Album, we learn of Didion’s experience with Kasabian and her attorney, buying Kasabian’s dress for trial, and years later meeting up with her in New York. Then there is her account of a young pastor in California who moves his congregation to Tennessee to avoid the massive earthquake that is to doom the west coast. On the more personal side, her disclosure of managing migraines, sewing curtains, and her own sanity are laid to bare, not in drawn out oration, but with sensibility and brevity.

When discussing our reading material, a close friend described Didion as “wicked smart”.  Yes. And insightful and self-aware; all with an elegant writing ability that conveys meaning in the slightest of actions. In Didion’s writing there is both empathy and distance; brilliance and subtlety. 

Published: 1979
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Vickie’s rating: 4 stars