Slouching Towards Bethlehem

ISBN: 0374521727
ISBN 13: 9780374521721
By: Joan Didion

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Reader's Thoughts

Patrick O'Neil

Everyone I know who reads a lot or considers themselves writers has told me to read Joan Didion. I always cringe and go the other way when too many people tell me to do the same thing. I’m not sure where, or when, this resistance to Didion started. But it has somehow manifested itself in my psyche. During my first semester at Antioch University, Rob Roberge, in one of his brilliant seminars, made a few comical references to her. Not her writing, but of Didion, or more precisely the cult of Didion – much to the disapproval of my fellow students – so furthering the hype that I figured I had to finally discover just what all the brouhaha was about. Didion can write. Her descriptive narratives that make up the chapters in Slouching Towards Bethlehem prove that she can. Yet it is the “her” in her descriptive narratives that I tend to not want to experience. Maybe I’m just too jaded with preconceived ideas, or I’ve set my expectations too high. Whatever the case, I can appreciate the craft – yet find her attitude/ego too much to wade through. Funny, but this is probably what people say about my writing. Hmmmmmmm.......

Aric Cushing

Incredible. The nonfiction piece 'Dreamers of the Golden Dream' I have read over and over through the years. An incredible depiction of California desert life, and the 'true crime' murder of a dentist. I cannot do it justice here because I am writing quickly, but this POSITIVELY is a MUST READ, if not just for the first nonfiction piece in this voluminous collection. (This entire book is also in the collection "We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live", which is all of Didion's work.)

Quinn Slobodian

I realize what is disturbing about these essays and what leaves the acrid aftertaste on the leftist tongue about Didion. And I don't think it has much to do with her relatively measured take on the drug-addled Haight-Ashbury scene. For better, but admittedly and sadly often for worse, the radical leftist imagination has been characterized by a willingness and a desire to leap out of our skin into the skin of others, to experience a jump of radical empathy in which the concerns of "they" become the concerns of "we," to see through many eyes the way Virginia Woolf allows us to do. Which is why, especially if we are white, we vilify our roots because we often see in our own family histories, a palimpsest of larger histories of injustice and oppression. We have a melancholic view of history, in which moments of utopian potential are consistently being snuffed out in the name of "order" and "tradition," the very values, in other words, which Didion spent much of her time in the 1960s eulogizing. She is writing funeral speeches for the passing of milieus whose only apparent meaningfulness is that they are connected to her own biography. Why we should lament the disappearance of the pathetic stagings and affectations of a dusty fake aristocracy is not clear to me, why we should take the survivalist grit of the pioneer generation as ethical models for the present even less so. The Indians are amongst us, protect your own, defend your lifestyle against all costs. These are the imperatives of the Right, old and new, Goldwater and Bush. Circle the wagons against the strange and the new. I admire Didion for the razorblade incisiveness of her critique but her unwillingness to open her subjectivity up to the world makes it difficult to think of her as an ally.

Jill Malone

A collection of essays that changed the way I look at writing--tone and syntax particularly. A tough, beautiful book.

Rosana

“...I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”I loved these essays. I could go on quoting Didion on and on, there are just too many great passages, great insights from her.The truth is that I am full of envy. I envy Joan Didion’s facility with words. In a vernacular that is erudite without being stuffy, poetic without being overly romantic, extremely precise and sharp, she distill her thoughts skilfully. I actually listen to it in audio format, and I know I am going to listen to one or another essay when I need something short to amuse me. But I am also going to buy the book because I want to highlight some passages, and because I want to give my own cadence to her voice. Diane Keaton narrated the version I listened and I did enjoy her voice. She sounded youthful, and made Didion’s monologues less cultured or intellectual than I perceive Didion to be. Which, surprisingly, I felt worked well. It gave Didion’s thoughts a new layer, more accessible and amicable. This collection is said to capture the essence of 1960’s America, and I think it does. We have John Wayne, Joan Baez, San Francisco and hippies… yet, the personal essays will stay with me longer: self-respect, immorality and the power of going home are obviously more material to me than historical commentary on America.I don’t know what I will read next, because it will be such a letdown after this book. I feel I am coming down from a high, and right now all I wanted is more of Didion’s words. Like a junkie I may just start from the beginning again. Someone please help me!

Greg Brown

To read Didion for the first time is to regret not reading her earlier.The first section is a wonderful snapshot of California at a particular stage of its existence—not pulling in those searching riches, as in the Gold rush and Silicon boom, but instead in those seeking a certain set of values. Those were the days when you could actually hitchhike, when your life could begin again in a new city. Sure, Didion goes the route of showing how darker intentions can lay under the placid, flourishing exterior of California's boom. But she also shows us places where there really aren't any dark impulses, or any impulses at all besides the urge to shut out the world.This all comes to a head in the title essay of the book, whereby Didion bounces around San Francisco drug culture at around the same time that it was also portrayed in Pynchon's Lot 49. Unlike Pynchon, though, Didion's disaffected harbor neither suspicions nor aspirations of grand schemes—only a solipsism disguised as enlightenment or self-improvement.I'm going on a tangent from the book here, but Didion's portrait of the era notably eludes a single question: why did this drug culture spring forth, and why did it go away? Here's a stab at a thesis.The first answer has to be the dissolution of institutions; while that's been happening for a while, the combination of civil rights, second-wave feminism, and Vietnam was quite potent to the youth of that era. All three were quite destabilizing, at least the first two for the better.So why did this culture stop? Well if the effect of drugs were to anesthetize yourself from the worries of the time, another development quickly outpaced drugs in both variety and reach: modern advertising. Advertising and consumer culture offer a release by buying things, while drugs are a more direct method. And those without money—those who advertising doesn't care to speak to, and those who have the most horrors to escape—are the populations still ravaged by drug abuse. Again, this is just a provisional thesis, but Didion's damning portrait of drugs as solipsism practically oozes from the page.Didion's personality comes across in the opening and closing sections as an ever-present undertone, but asserts itself for the personal essays that comprise the middle third. There's a tremendous force of will there, along with an accepting understanding that she's fundamentally damaged goods—jarringly attested to by multiple asides. Didion would win a staring contest with the abyss.All this talk about Didion's tone and ideas may obscure the most wonderful part of the book: her prose. She exhibits a tremendous command of the language—beautiful when she wants to be, but one of the all-time pithy greats when not. An image recurred in my mind while reading, impossible to quash or push away for long: a steel cable pulled taut, ringing from the tension. Aside from being a joy of craft, these qualities only add to Didion's thematic elements of a fallen race.By the end, the collection title that seemed a mere lodestar at the outset has become a thudding truth. For Didion, death and loss suffuses all. She remembers New York City with the pure fondness of someone who accepts those times are gone, and doesn't harbor nostalgia's hidden bitterness that they ever went away. California—and to an extent, Hawaii—are a strange attempt at societal tabula rasa, constantly sweeping away the past to create itself anew, but beset by forces that would continue the cycle, do the very same back. Deliberately forgetting the past will only do so much to stave off its effects, and not learning words to describe the gathering storm… that won't stop—not even for a moment—the violent crash of reality.

Jesse

The wry and casual elegance of Didion's prose style remains quite special despite the endless attempts at imitation in the decades that have followed; she also has that rare talent of being able to make you think you're reading something lightweight, even disposable and then at the last minute flooring you by unleashing an unexpected torrent of significance and resonance.But as lovely and thoroughly enjoyable as these essays were, I will always be grateful for a disclosure Didion makes in the collection's short preface: "I am not sure what more I could tell you about these pieces. I could tell you that I liked doing some of them more than others, but that all of them were hard for me to do, and took more time than perhaps they were worth; that there is always a point in the writing of a piece when I sit in a room literally papered with false starts and cannot put one word after another and imagine that I have suffered a small stroke, leaving me apparently undamaged but actually aphasic." I read these several sentences at a particularly dark moment early on in my thesis writing process where I also found myself suddenly unable to string together a simple sentence, despite the fact I was writing on topic I have been thinking about for years and years and am ready to share my thoughts on. I was ready to write: and suddenly couldn't.Needless to say I wrote this out on a index card and stuck it above the wall on my desk, and now it serves as kind of a talisman, the reminder I often need of the sheer hard work of writing and that even the very best--even those who give the impression of such effortlessness and ease of articulation--must valiantly struggle sometimes too. The next day I started writing again. And while there is much to appreciate about this book, I will always treasure it for that.

Nora Dillonovich

I like Joan Didion... and now I want to leave Oregon and move to California, though wonder if my staunch New Englandness can truly make such a move with comfort or a modicum of ease or will I simply feel like a foreigner, like a spy sent from a far to see how the other side lives and to debunk the mythology I created growing up back east of California? I am a New Englander, truly; in many ways the puritanical pragmatism is ingrained in my bones and is the tendency I fall back upon despite valiant efforts and eating copious amounts of psychadelic mushrooms in the early 00's. When I am in Portland, distance and nostalgia cloud my rarely accurate memory with a veil of foggy romanticism. I think of Amherst and Northampton and Cambridge, the oldness, the architecture and history. When I am in Massachusetts, I feel withdrawn, interior, a touch stifled and, frankly, a tad depressed and I think warmly of Portland: the rain, my bike, and cozy dwellings. I left this book moved by many of Didion's essays, wondering how I missed this book, when in high school I devoured The White Album and Play It As It Lays with such rapidity that I lack any idea of what those books were actually about, but in typical Didion fashion, I recall with clarity and immediacy who I was. Where I was emotionally and spiritually stays with me: a plane on the way to Atlanta, terrified because in a few months I was leaving home to go to college and felt rudderless, without much tethering me to anything, adrift. I remember my window seat, drinking lukewarm lousy black tea as I watched the clouds and the glimpses of land below, a creeping sense of awareness that my crisis of identity was banal and even the scene itself, on a plane, book in hand, tears welling in eyes struck a chord, a cheap string on a shitty plastic guitar. And now I wonder, where do I belong geographically... where is my home, in the sense of place as home?

Pat

Joan Didion is a pleasure to read. I picked up this book because of the essay on keeping a journal but was captured by the essay "Slouching towards Bethlehem" named after the Yeats poem. The essay concerns San Francisco in the 60s and the powers growing here or the "beast". I am moved by her language and insight and her way of circling and sliding up to truths.

Mason

A word of advice; don’t read Didion before you go to sleep. Or first thing in the morning. Or on a day when you’ve got a lot of work ahead of you. Her words will follow you around, and once they’re lodged in your brain, well, good luck doing anything else but contemplating them over and over again. These essays won’t be everyone’s cup of tea; they are piercing, often brutal distillations of the author’s social anxiety—Didion pours all of her insecurities about herself and the world at large into these pieces, and at times you can almost feel her nerves tensing and her head throbbing as she goes round and round the prickly pear of 1960’s America. Didion’s terse, fearless ingenuity turns even a potential puff piece into existential exploration; an article on Howard Hughes’s house becomes a ruthless deconstruction of the American dream; a trip to Las Vegas kicks off an exploration of modern-day marriage so ruthlessly incisive that it almost comes off as mean-spirited. And when she’s dealing with the Big Stuff, strap on your hard hat; the titular essay attacks the hippie movement with such keen ferocity that you’re likely to lose any remaining traces of Woodstock nostalgia. For the most part, this is a stimulating example of New Journalism; but the personal essays are just as good, if not better, than her newspaper work. “Goodbye to All That” and “On Keeping A Notebook”, are required reading for anyone interested in non-fiction writing. If Hemingway had written in the 60s and 70s, his work probably would’ve looked something like this: devastating in its honesty, agile in its economy, and voltaic in its cumulative power.

blue-collar mind

Can I tell you I am shocked by those who do not know Joan Didion's writing? And there are lots of these types, I can tell you. Few under 28 has read her, and I blame the school systems that think (I assume) that she has been over praised, and yet these same schools struggle with explaining how to spot well-written, clear as bell non-fiction. Easy answer is to assign Didion and let them see it. Who said essaysists are curmudgeons and have a gift for insight into human behaviour? (Maybe the brilliant essayist Edward Hoagland?)I know that James Baldwin said that that an essay is essentially an argument, and that in an essay, the writer's point of view is always absolutely clear.In those definitions, Didion is the very model of an essayist and also just a damn good writer (I say firmly and with a bit of lifted eyebrow, in case someone out there feels like picking a fight...)...Am talking to my friend Jennifer on the phone while I write this; she is another Didion fan, so I ask her why she likes her; she says she likes Didion's fictional characters; she said the female characters are great because they are "unfathomable but interesting." "Spare and elegant" are two more descriptions from J about Didion's writing.Read these essays I say (and then read her novel "Play It As It Lays", says Jennifer.)

Alice

Really? People like Joan Didion? Really? The best thing about this book is the fact that she includes William Butler Yeats' "The Second Coming." I'd never read Yeats before and he is amazing!I always felt like Joan Didion was one of those authors I should read, and she does write lovely, fluid, effortless prose; I'll give her two stars just for that. However, the theme tying these essays together seems to be that things just aren't like they used to be. Didion was only in her thirties in 1968 when this collection was first published, and she spends way too much time whining about both her lost youth and the current state of the world. She has a nostalgia for the good old days that no one that young has earned.I'd like to read something else by her. What a waste of obvious talent to write these essays.

Benjamin Church

"In retrospect it seems to me that those days before I knew the names of all the bridges were happier than the ones that came later, but perhaps you will see that as we go along. Part of what I want to tell you is what it is like to be young in New York, how six months can become eight years with the deceptive ease of a film dissolve, for that is how those years appear to me now, in a long sequence of sentimental dissolves and old-fashioned trick shots--the Seagram Building fountains dissolve into snowflakes, I enter a revolving door at twenty and come out a good deal older, and on a different street. But most particularly I want to explain to you, and in the process perhaps to myself, why I no longer live in New York. It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came ther from somewhere else, a city for only the very young." -- J.D. 'Goodbye To All That'

Matthew

It would be interesting to track precisely when Didion went from an essayist of surprise and guts and instinct to a useless "journalist", a neurotic upper-upper-middle-class self-chronicler and collector of the obvious--when she lost heart and became her own problems. But I read this, often over and over, and fall in love with what she was, even her outsized narcissism and implied cruelties, even her contagion and paranoia, and know that even knowing the reprehensible, shriveled porcelain doll she's become in the meantime, I still would have married her, given the chance, into a life of slow-dawning disappointment. And wouldn't you? You don't grow Didion in the modern lawntending suburbs. You grow her in the desert. As Hempel wrote once: Nerves like that are only brought off by catastrophe.

James Smith

I have sort of read Joan Didion backwards, beginning with her masterful memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking, and now working my way back to Slouching Towards Bethlehem--one of those books that casts a long shadow over contemporary nonfiction. I picked up this book as a companion for a recent trip back to Los Angeles, both because Didion is one of those rare creatures who is a "native" of California, but also because California figures prominently in these essays. But I became so absorbed in the book I didn't sleep on my redeye flight and finished it while taxiing at LAX.As I understand it, Didion was sometimes mistaken for a reactionary conservative because of her unflinching depiction of the Haight-Ashbury district in the summer of '67 (the title essay in this volume). This is clearly to misread her. Indeed, Didion cringes at her own inability to capture the essence of the summer of love in that essay, but she also laments misreading:I suppose almost everyone who writes is afflicted some of the time by the suspicion that nobody out there is listening, but it seemed to me then (perhaps because the piece was important to me) that I had never gotten a feedback so universally beside the point.This is part of the allure of this volume: it is both a collection of stellar nonfiction writing as well as reflexive commentary on the vocation and task of writing. Hence the more confessional, autobiographical moments of the book (on keeping a notebook, on going home, on leaving New York). Even these are packed with suggestive nuance. (For example, in commenting on the faith a young communist in Watts who seems driven by dread, Didion confesses: "I know something about dread myself, and appreciate the elaborate systems with which some people manage to fill the void, appreciate all the opiates of the people, whether they are as accessible as alcohol and heroine or as hard to come by as faith in God or History.")In these pieces from the 60s, Didion is both a powerful stylist and a crisp observer. Her writing couples bravura and insight as few can. In fact, in this sense she often reminded me of Norman Mailer (imagine Norman Mailer with a vagina!). There are paragraphs in here (especially in "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream") that left me almost breathless from their energy--a virtuoso performance that captures both a zeitgest and a geography in 3 pages of fire. But there are crystallized one-liners that nail reality to the wall (of Joan Baez she says, "until she found Carmel, she did not really come from anywhere"). California is a quarry for Didion precisely because California is where Americanism goes to die--though it goes there thinking it will achieve eternal life. Didion often frames this in terms of the "dream": the American dream, the dream of the Gold Rush, the buttoned-down dreamers in the Valley or the turned-on dreamers in the Haight. So the spiral of a disaffected marriage in southern California becomes "the revelation that the dream was teaching the dreamers how to live"--and kill and die. Or in a remarkable piece on John Wayne, a younger Didion confesses: "when John Wayne rode through my childhood, and perhaps through yours, he determined forever the shape of certain of our dreams." Or she sees Howard Hughes as a projection of our dreams:That we have made a hero of Howard Hughes tells us something interesting about ourselves, something only dimly remembered, tells us that the secret point of money and power in America is neither the things that money can buy nor power for power's sake [...], but absolute personal freedom, mobility, privacy. [...] He is the last private man, the dream we no longer admit.I suppose the line on Didion as a reactionary or a 'conservative' of sorts stems from a kind of memory or quasi-nostalgia that sometimes comes to the surface in this collection. For example, she recalls the scene of John Wayne's "discovery" by director John Ford: "There, a meeting with John Ford, one of the several directors who were to sense that into this perfect mold might be poured the inarticulate longings of a nation wondering at just what pass the trail had been lost." The same sense of loss and errancy gets a kind of imprimatur on her reflections on the history of Sacramento, her home town--a town founded on a curious mixture of hope and history, that things started downhill pretty much just after the "Eureka" moment of discovery:Such a view of history casts a certain melancholia over those who participate in it; my own childhood was suffused with the conviction that we had long outlived our finest hour. In fact that is what I want to tell you about: what it is like to come from a place like Sacramento. If I could make you understand that, I could make you understand California and perhaps something else besides, for Sacramento is California, and California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried by ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent.The lament/memory/nostalgia is most famously expressed in the opening of "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" where Didion observes "children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together." This opening gambit is completed by the end of the essay when she concludes: At some point between 1945 and 1967 we had somehow neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we happened to be playing. Maybe we had stopped believing it ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game. Maybe there were just too few people around to do the telling. These were children who grew up cut loose from the web of cousins and great-aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbors who had traditionally suggested and enforced the society's values. They are children who have moved around a lot, San Jose, Chula Vista, here. They are less in rebellion against the society than ignorant of it, able only to feed back certain of its most publicized self-doubts, Vietnam, Saran-Wrap, diet pills, the Bomb.[It is a straight line, I think, from this observation to the stinging satire of Shteyngart's Super Sad True Love Story.]So Didion regularly looks back, laments something lost, wonders whether we've taken some wrong turns. For those who think any glance back amounts to some kind of ideology (this assumption itself being ideological), this is enough for Didion to qualify as a reactionary. But is all memory nostalgia? And could our memory sometimes be right? Certainly Didion is no Whig; and only whiggish ideals of progress consider historical laments as false de jure. But some of us just refuse such simplicities. Perhaps Didion is a Burkean we need now more than ever.

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