Known for her extensive observations of different American subcultures, and her explicit writing on issues surrounding the disintegration of American morals and cultural chaos, award-winning journalist and writer Joan Didion has left an indelible mark on literary journalism as she is revered for her unique ability to capture American life. Her work has received extensive recognition over the years, including the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2015, the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation in 2007, and the National Medal of Arts from the United States government, among many others.
The Sacramento, California native, who graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English in 1956, began her career with Vogue after having won the “Prix de Paris” essay contest sponsored by the magazine in her senior year. She started off as a promotional copywriter before moving up to become an associate feature editor.
While still with Vogue, Joan Didion wrote her first novel titled Run, River (1963) with the help of her future husband, John Gregory Dunne, who was writing for Time magazine at the time. A few years later, Didion published her first non-fiction work, kicking off what can only be described as a brilliant writing career.
Here is our selection of the seven best writings by Didion that we believe everyone should read at least once in their lifetime.
7 Best Joan Didion Books
1. Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)
Slouching Towards Bethlehem is the first non-fiction book written by Joan Didion. It features a collection of essays about the writer’s experiences in California during the 1960s. Some of these experiences include meeting a 5-year-old girl whose mother always gave LSD and a neglected young boy who nearly sets his house on fire.
2. The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)
Described as a classic book about mourning and one of the most intimate looks into the life of Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking is a memoir that recounts the year following the death of the writer’s husband, John Gregory Dunne. The book received rave reviews and won the 2005 National Book Award for Nonfiction. It was further a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize for Biography/Autobiography and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
3. The White Album (1979)
The White Album is another collection of essays by Didion that is also based around the events in California. It specifically centers around the history and politics of the state in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Most of the essays that appeared in the book had previously been published in magazines like Life, Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, The New York Times, and The New York Review of Books.
4. Play It as It Lays (1970)
Undoubtedly one of the most popular works of fiction, Didion’s Play It as It Lays paints a ruthlessly true picture of American life in the late 1960s. Such was the impact of the book that it was adapted into a movie of the same name two years after it was published. Time magazine has also since included the novel among the 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.
5. South and West (2017)
Fans of Joan Didion know that the writer has all her life kept in notebooks of observations, overheard dialogue, interviews, drafts of essays and articles. To put together this non-fiction book, she opens her notebook to recount a road trip that she and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, took through the Southeastern United States; Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama in the 1970s.
6. Blue Nights (2011)
Another book similar to The Year of Magical Thinking where Didion mourns the loss of a family member, Blue Nights gives an account of the death of the writer’s daughter, Quintana Roo Dunne. She further explores her feelings on parenthood and aging using a conventional narrative path.
7. After Henry (1992)
After Henry, which was named in honor of her late friend and former editor, Henry Robbins, is a compilation of essays she wrote after his death that appeared in various publications. The book delves into various aspects of American life in the 1980s, from the racial battlefields of New York’s criminal courts to interpretations of the stories of Nancy Reagan and Patty Hearst.