There is a line in the first essay in The White Album: “…I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.” Substitute 2020, and I’m here (though 1968 was also a very climactic year).
The White Album is a collection of Joan Didion’s excellent essays from the late 1960s through the 1970s. She covers topics from the Manson Killings to the new California Governor’s mansion (built for “a family of snackers”, and it has since been sold to a private family) to Hawaii, Georgia O’Keefe, Doris Lessing, and more.
I picked up The White Album this time precisely for that 1970s-era-disaster-vibe that 2020 has. She has a wonderful way of describing the unreality of the world that we live in, and I needed to see that 2020 isn’t original in its awfulness.
This has happened before. This time around, we suffer anxiety and depression instead of vertigo and nausea. Welcome to 2020, same as 1970.
Sharp is a well-researched overview of a series of ten public intellectuals, all women, what they wrote, how other people reacted to it, and how they handled those reactions. What kind of personas did they get? Which of their pieces defined their public personas? How did they feel about that? Why?
The well-researched aspect of the book was the part that most resonated with me. I came away wanting to read all the books and articles by Kael, Didion, Parker, even Sontag, who I developed a disdain for in the 1990s for no particular reason. I want to add every entry in Sharp‘s bibliography to my own already too-long to read list. I am envious of Michelle Dean for having the time and purpose to have already done so.
Also, Nora Ephron, I’m sorry. I knew your persona as the person who wrote Meg Ryan movies. The same Meg Ryan movies that I got sick of in the 80s and 90s. I still don’t understand why/how Meg Ryan’s and Tom Hank’s characters fell in love without really meeting through the whole of Sleepless in Seattle. And Billy Crystal’s schtick was fine the first time I saw When Harry Met Sally, but it was grating upon re-watch. Eventually, the movies just felt like Meg Ryan being Meg Ryan – unfair to her and you, I can see now – and not like anything special or interesting. (And yes, I believe men and women can be friends without one wanting to sleep with the other.) I had no idea you had a whole pre-movie body of work. It’s time to go read that.
And maybe this is where I say something about how women get discounted in intellectual life, and where I cite a relevant quote from How to Suppress Women’s Writing. Instead I will say that I am glad Michelle Dean is taking these women seriously and inspiring other people to also take them seriously.
What’s it about?
The White Album is a famous set of essays by Joan Didion about the various aspects of living in California in the 1960s and 1970s. She covers weird neighbors, the California governor’s mansion, how to pack, migraines, depression/anxiety, and a wide range of other topics. It is a window on a particular time in a particular place.
Why should you read it?
Well, if for no other reason that it allowed me to start describing my own kitchen as “for snackers, not for cooks.” (We’ve moved in the last few months. Our new kitchen isn’t set up for even semi-serious cooking.) There may be a bon mot for you too.
But it also is a window on an era: it’s a very specific slice of American history, when the baby boomers were protesting Vietnam, when the idealism of the 1960s moved into the hedonism of the 1970s, and what it was like to be a young adult during that time. Now we’ve moved so far away from that to the-market-and-capitalism-will-fix-everything… It can be jarring to think of the world like that. Part of why we moved on is because of criticism like Didion’s. She didn’t give the era a warm, happy glow. She points out its flaws, and does it well.
It’s a critical eye looking at a time that was often romanticized (at least when/were I grew up). For that, I am grateful.