The White Album

ISBN: 0374522219
ISBN 13: 9780374522216
By: Joan Didion

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About this book

First published in 1979, "The White Album "is a journalistic mosaic" "of American life in the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. It includes, among other bizarre artifacts and personalities, reportage on the dark journeys and impulses of the Manson family, a visit to a Black Panther Party press conference, the story of John Paul Getty's museum, a meditation on the romance of water in an arid landscape, and reflections on the swirl and confusion that marked this era. With commanding sureness of mood and language, Didion exposes the realities and dreams of an age of self-discovery whose spiritual center was California. Table of ContentsI. THE WHITE ALBUM"The White Album" II. CALIFORNIA REPUBLIC"James Pike, American""Holy Water""Many Mansions""The Getty""Bureaucrats""Good Citizens""Notes Toward a Dreampolitik" III. WOMEN"The Women's Movement""Doris Lessing""Georgia O'Keeffe" IV. SOJOURNS"In the Islands""In Hollywood""In Bed""On the Road""On the Mall""In Bogota""At the Dam" V. ON THE MORNING AFTER THE SIXTIES"On the Morning After the Sixties""Quiet Days in Malibu"

Reader's Thoughts

Pedro Fragoso

Even better than Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), this is one of the best book of essays I've ever read. My 3 favorites pieces were, on this order, "The Women's Movement" (absolute masterpiece of intelligence, reasoning, clarity, logic and style), "Doris Lessing" and "Georgia O'Keeffe", but all the rest was as luminous, and the texts on California truly brilliant, one after the other. I've read a review here (I think it was of "The Year of Magical Thinking", I'm not sure) from someone who stated that she loved the style of Didion, but not the substance. I certainly like the style, which veers from the impressively effective to the incredibly elegant, but I do love the themes she explores and what she has to say about them. I even find myself systematically agreeing with her points of view, as a matter of fact.

Hank Stuever

If I ever had to pick, this is my all-time favorite book, not only by Joan Didion, but by anybody. It was assigned reading in Fr. Schroth's Travel Writing course in the spring of 1990 -- my final semester. The course was less concerned with the "service journalism" aspect of travel writing (hotel details, itineraries, restaurants, etc.) and more of a travel literature course, involving a ton of reading (Thoreau's "Walden"; Bruce Chatwin, Paul Theroux, Didion) and quite a bit of writing/reporting. I vividly remember the dozen or so students in that course, gathered around the big table, picking apart these essays and then picking apart our own work in a beneficial way.Anyhow, "The White Album": From the opening essay, I was hooked. Here was the writer I'd been waiting for all my life -- the cool-headed observer, the person aware of social movements as well as very small, personal movements; the sort of observer who knows how to shut up and keep it close. The eye for detail. The perfect sentences. The hot winds, the edgy headaches, the California anomie. The only downside is that, as a young writer (like countless others), I spent too much time aping her style until I found my own. I guess I felt about "The White Album" the way other young, collegiate men fall hopelessly in love with Hunter S. Thompson's druggy gonzo journalism, a la "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." It's just another kind of trip.Also, when I first read "The White Album," I was preparing to move to L.A. and start my career. This book was 10 years old when I read it, but it couldn't have come along at a better time for me. I've read this book a hundred times since and I learn something new about writing (and watching) each time.


How can I not give this five stars? She could be writing on the thickness of hairs on a pig's tell, and still one would read, mesmerized by writing so captivating, by style so simple that the simplicity is deceptive. Needless to say, this was my first Didion. Needless to say it won't be last. This is pinnacle of essay writing -- the proof being the way one can't put down (or unplug, in my case, because I was listening to the audiobook) the book despite having no connect to most of the things she talks about. And yet what better ends could a book -- especially a non-fiction book -- target, than giving people who have no access to a world long lost (as all worlds are eventually, although long in this case is in terms of human lifespan, not cultural lifespan) a glimpse of it -- vivid, in parts, just enough to arouse interest. It's hard to pinpoint what use it all is, but that hardly matters. What matters is how well Didion can write, and that's reason enough to read it.


I remember being completely captivated by Slouching towards Bethlehem – by the seemingly, and perhaps objectively, inconsequential and often very time-specific subject matter of the little stories that were nevertheless outstandingly fresh and moving to me, as if I’ve roamed the US of A for decades and was in on all the little historical and cultural details informing the essays. The stylish language, Didion’s ability to turn even the most banal subject, such as the annual California foehn for example, into a curious little gem of a case study that remains lodged in your memory long after you’ve finished reading the book were completely novel and inspiring for me. Slouching towards Bethlehem remains in my top, say, 15 books just because of how poetically and engagingly it talks about “everyday,” “small” stuff, for the way it zooms in on a little piece of life to examine all its intricacies, its various aspects, and ultimately its beauty.The White Album, ever so sorry, was simply not on par with StB for me. Both books comprise journalistic essays written for various US magazines; Slouching towards Bethlehem focuses on social, political, and cultural events of the 60s, and The White Album is more concerned with the 70s. Yet despite their similar "ingredients," The White Album does not achieve the level of genuine wonder and cool perceptiveness of Didion’s earlier collection. The very first essay, called “The White Album,” (and I can see why it gave the name to the whole book, as it truly is the strongest and one of the few pieces where a glimpse of the brilliance of Slouching towards Bethlehem seeps through), is indeed a very promising start; it exactly reminded me of why it is I like Joan Didion so much. The essay is Didion’s attempt to make sense of the period at the end of the 60s and the beginning of the 70s – when Didion was herself in her late 20s, early 30s and gaining acclaim and respect as a writer, mother, wife, and member of the community. Even though on the surface everything seemed to be going fine in her life, she felt an inexplicable disintegration – both personally and in the world around her. So much was she feeling lost and confused that she sought psychiatric help, and the report based on the psychiatric analysis, which Didion cites in its completeness in the essay, reveals a deeply troubled personality. It seemed that the events Didion had to cover as a journalist (she was reporting on lots of crime stories, some of them pretty famous cases), the idiosyncrasies of the cultural scene of 70s’ Los Angeles, of which Didion was a regular if, as she says, inconspicuous part, all were at some point simply overwhelming for her; failing to put all these experiences and stories into a "narrative" – a cohesive story that would help her put things into perspective, a comprehensible shape, Didion decides to just lay out the pieces and let them be. It is Didion's firm and explicit belief that it is stories that help us make sense of life; we need these structured narratives of our experience “in order to live.” So for her to be unable to arrive at a rationalized and neat account of the period and the episodes that marked it, is sort of numbing, and it upsets her on a level below the outwardly calm surface. The structure of the essay itself reflects this inability to come up with a “story” very well, it is as disjointed and disrupted as Joan Didion was feeling at that time. By giving us bits and pieces, snapshots of life, Didion makes us sort of part of this experience, where the story develops through fragments that the reader has to consider and maybe piece together for themselves, and Didion herself states directly that she is just unable or unwilling to provide a definitive answer on “what it all means.”There are other very beautiful pieces, of course, and I cannot overlook such quietly enthralling stories like “In the Islands,” about the military cemetery on Hawaii, intertwined with a very candid account of a difficult period in Didion’s personal life; “In Bogota” (I have a personal interest in things Colombian); and the very last piece – “Quiet Days in Malibu” – a lovely snapshot of a part of LA known for its “easy life,” of course, wrongly so, and Joan Didion shows us why, through which another story runs - about orchid breeders (yes, it sounds kind of remote and frankly uninteresting, but it’s one of the loveliest Didion stories I’ve read, by far).I’ve read that the third section, entitled Women, has received, and to this day, scathing criticism. And rightly so. In a 2005 interview for The Guardian, Joan Didion says that the most criticized essay in the section, “On Women Movements,” was largely misunderstood – with it, she was not making the point that women movements were useless, as was construed to be the case by the critics ( While there were parts of the essay I could understand, most of it just baffled me; the skepticism, the critical stance, and the detachedness that lend most of Didion’s pieces their unique character here turn into a sort of self-righteous arrogance and disparagement that I could neither understand nor accept.

John Doe

Didion doesn't buy into all of that collectivist angst crap, but she is not without her own strange eccentricities. For example, when people give her Scientology books she puts them in a drawer instead of throwing them away because she wants to keep them but she doesn't want anyone to see them on her bookshelf and get the wrong idea, etc. Her view of the 1960s is a skeptical one. She is skeptical of the Black Panther party and of the Women's Movement. She is skeptical of "The Revolution" and of Ronald Reagan's dream house--a house which she describes as a "rather astonishingly and enlarged version of a very common kind of Californian tract house, a monument not to a colossal ego but to a weird absence of ego, a case study in the architecture of limited possibilities…as devoid of privacy or personal eccentricity as the lobby area of a Ramada Inn." She is also careful to note that Jerry Brown refused to live there, and that he decided instead to live in a hotel room in Sacramento because the Governor's mansion was simply "too far" from the capital. Ha! Didion values what she calls "hardness" in women. A person with this quality knows who she is and knows in what she is interested; if she built a house, for instance, it would be the sort of house in which one might live. To say she has "hardness," means she is unapologetically herself. She might, for example, be obsessed with where the water is at any given time in Southern California, or she might be the sort of person who is thrown out of a greenhouse that is full of rare and expensive plants because she is breathing too much oxygen. Even though these are essays, I recommend not skipping around too much. I found that some of her most interesting observations are contained within what seem to be her least juicy essays. Read it like a novel, it's a good novel.

Cassandra Gillig

Every time Joan Didion comes up, I want to, like, run home and roll around on the floor in mmpbs of SLOUCHING TOWARD BETHLEHEM--cooing and giggling wildly. I was reading an anthology for class, and remembered why I'd hidden THE WHITE ALBUM behind so many others on my bookshelf: its constant peering into my soul from the shelf was DISTRACTING. It's so hard to not get territorial + overly sensational about the females whose presence in literature is not simply booming and tremendous but so so so so merited. Gender aside: total trailblazer in regards to writing about how it actually feels to be HUMAN & ALIVE. I don't even know why I'm writing a review of this (certainly not wanting to give anything away--it's a must read); just put me on a boat and sail me to Didion Island. Ladies Night of the soul.


Whenever I think of "Slouching Toward Bethlehem," I flash to its most provocative images: The four-year-old tripping on LSD, dinner with John Wayne, the opening true-crime story about a murder-of-passion. Joan Didion always appears revolted by the state of things, as if the world is a bitter pill that she refuses to swallow, instead tonguing the capsule as it acidly dissolves."The White Album" isn't just a sequel collection, nor is it a mere extention of 60's reportage into the 70's. Didion really starts to lose her mind. In the wake of the Manson murders, Didion trembles at every knock at the door. Pondering every grain that makes her era's vast desert, Didion has a kind of nervous collapse, described with admirable candor. If Sylvia Plath didn't go crazy and call her father a Nazi and kill herself; if instead she had grown up to become one of America's greatest nonfiction writers, "The White Album" might have resulted. Didion is rarely categorized as a "New Journalist," perhaps because she's lightyears beyond most of its heroes: gutsier than John McPhee, more sophisticated than Tom Wolfe, technically superior to Hunter S. Thompson. There is even humor, but it's the kind of poker-faced sarcasm that the era required, even of this nostalgic, self-doubting Republican.

Dan Danger

These essays cover a variety of topics relevant to American life in the 1960s and 70s with Didion's eye for details and clever pen. In 2012, this collection is hit-or-miss with contemporary American life.


All I wanted to ask Joan Didion while reading the White Album is "What's a girl like you doing in a place like this?" What is Didion, an emotionally distant, rich, white, country club belonging, journalist doing at a black panther meeting, a Door's recording session, or buying dresses for one of the Manson girls? The image each of these situations creates is one the fits the old Sesame Street song, "One of these things is not like the other." That being said, the more I read of Didion the more impressed I was by her writing style. Her structure is incredible and one in which has helped to influence my own writing. It is hard not to admire her unique perspective and her meaningful recounting of seemingly meaningless moments. The title essay is definitely the best. The essay's about California less so, although perhaps the appeal of that material eluded me since it is a state I have yet to visit. Her essay on feminism is absolutely scathing. This particular essay and led my creative writing professor to cover Didion’s face on the book jacket with a Chiquita Banana sticker in a moment of protest. Overall, this book is worth reading for those eager to learn from a master of nonfiction prose.


I've always thought that I was somehow naïve to some sort of greater truth about reality, or at least the United States, or at least California, because I had never read anything by Joan Didion. Friends and acquaintances and strangers spoke of her with a sort of ineloquent awe as if their own descriptions could never match her lucid prose or mental acuity.Now that I have actually read her own words I want to know, what is all the fuss about? I find Barbara Grizzutti Harrison's 1980 essay much more resonant than anything Didion writes in The White Album. The book is page after page of name-dropping. Hollywood stars, famous criminals, the super-wealthy, and anyone related by one degree. She mentions the names of the boutiques where she shops, the expensive restaurants where she eats. I couldn't care less.The book also over-intellectualizes the mundane and I found myself skimming through several chapters unable to find either beautiful description or coherent revelation. I assume that Joan Didion's popularity stems from the fact that East Coast high society wanted New Yorker-style correspondent in the midst of California's sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Or perhaps it's her strangely placed commas. But Didion isn't the correspondent for me and it's not like there is any shortage of wealthy baby boomers trying to figure out (or remember) what the hell happened in the 60's and 70's.That's not to say that there weren't any notes of interest in the book. I found her condemnation of carpool lanes (or "Diamond Lanes" as she describes them) fascinating. My generation grew up taking for granted the fact that carpool lanes were a universally good thing. Even in solitude at 4 p.m. on the 405, we didn't curse the carpool lanes, we cursed ourselves for traveling alone. For Didion, however, creating carpool lanes wasn't forward thinking by Caltrans, it was symbolic of out-of-touch bureaucrats spending millions of dollars on projects that the citizenry did not want. Lamenting the restrictions that Caltrans was placing on Southern Californian 'individual mobility' she practically cheers on the urban guerillas who pour paint and nails along the carpool lanes.I will try reading at least one other Didion book, perhaps a novel, but I won't be able to approach it with anything other than skepticism.


Didion's collection of essays about California in the 1960s and 1970s is iconic; a series of heartfelt postcards from an anxious traveler. I read an old paperback copy on a beach in Mexico, and it fell apart, physically, as I read it. First the front cover fell off, then the back, and then, due to humidity and sheer lack of human contact, the paper of the binding rolled away, and then the binding itself began disintegrating, dropping onto my stomach like literary dandruff. Strangely, I continued holding the covers in place as I read, attempting to ignore its decomposition. It occurred to me the book fell apart just as many in the 1960s found society was falling apart, or, for others, as they wanted institutions to disintegrate.The 1960s and 1970s were a time of emotional and intellectual dislocation. Didion's most moving essays form the bookends of the work. The book opens with her thoughts on our own personal narrative, now important it is, and how we make sense of our lives and the world through personal narrative. And when that story, that narrative, falls apart, as it did for many in the 1960s, we suffer a profound disorientation. "We live entirely, especially if we are writers, by the imposition of a narrative line upon disparate images, by the "ideas" with which we have learned to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience." The first essay, called The White Album, goes, like the others, down easy, but builds subtly until an epiphanous final line, which makes one want to go back and reread the piece so we can see more clearly how the tension builds, how the pieces fit together. While some of the essays in the book's midsection may seem pedestrian, they are in fact astute snapshots of life in California at a particular time, and are at times surprising, arresting, and then suddenly breathtakingly intimate. Didion uses the adjective "inchoate" four times in the book, which, as it is a word seldom used, stood out, and seemed odd for a writer of her prowess. (Maybe it was simply a favorite of her magazine editors.) But upon reflection, Didion, as a historian working in close to real time, probably had no better word. Aren't many of our fears, motivations, and understandings of ourselves and our world inchoate? There is a humility that is implied, an imperfection, that Didion is a master of sensing and communicating.


I admit that after reading Didion's latest books about her husband and daughter's deaths, I was pre-disposed against hearing of her junket-jammed lifestyle, and celebrity name dropping; there was a fair amount of that in these essays from 40 years ago, leaving me with a less-than-fuzzy feeling for the author as a person. However ... that was okay as this proved a damned fine collection in spite of all that. The entries are largely snapshots in time, but with universal themes, so that the "dated" references fit in, rather than stand out.


This was my first Joan Didion book, and now I'm a little obsessed. I love how precise and crafted her sentences are, how she explores and writes about unique topics (orchid farming, Hoover Dam), and how invested she seems to be in everything she describes. More than just giving a fascinating portrait of California and the U.S. in the 1970's, Didion seems really committed to understanding and describing what it means to be a person in and of that time. The best books, I think, change my way of thinking about the world, both while I'm reading them, and afterward. Beyond just being a portrait of a writer and a time, this book seems to offer a challenge to readers to recognize that we too are people of and in a time, and to strive to look past the everyday and attempt to define for ourselves exactly what it means to live here and to live now.


Didion, how do you do it? How do you make the most mundane of details carry a weight that is oftentimes either sinister or mournful? Tell me!The White Album is another collection of essays from Joan Didion and like Slouching Towards Bethlehem there are some essays that are vastly superior to others. There's a section of essays here on California that's kind of dull to me. Not because of the writing, per se, but more because of the topics. I mean, she writes about water treatment plants for Christ's sake. It's hard to get really excited about that. Also, there's an essay where she kind of shits all over second wave feminism and that was kind of hard going down.But man, when she's writing on a topic that's alive an interesting, it's hard to turn away from the page. My favorite essay in the collection ended up being "In Bed," where Didion describes how she's been afflicted with migraines for most of her life. The ending in particular really spoke to me.Whenever I finish reading something that Didion has written I come away feeling like I've learned something, not only on the topic the essay is on, but about writing and how to write better. That's how awesome she is.

M. Sarki

Loved most of what I read, which was the majority of the book, but some of it was of no interest to me. However, her writing is magnificent. I loved the titled essay and it was heartwarming to again revisit the 60's and early 70's with Joan Didion as my guide. Her picture on the back of the hardcover jacket is so flattering of her. Smart woman. I also thoroughly enjoyed her essay on migraine headaches and how she learned to deal with them.

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