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

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.


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.

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.


(4.3/5.0) Hawaii + Shopping Malls + Los Angeles + Nonchalant Depictions of Violence and Excess; What this woman was born to write about.


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.


Joan Didion must be thrilled to have received my first five star review.You don't need to get more than a couple of pages into it to appreciate Didion's sentence construction, which has an irregular rhythm to it that matches exactly the sentiment she tries to convey. She's is masterful in using precise language and description to convey facts and events that belie deep seated uncertainty. And there's a further juxtaposition in the way she somehow manages to give frank opinions while maintaining a journalistic approach, which is then layered further on broader melancholy. I really think this is masterful writing.I haven't read other New Journalism writers, so I can't say for sure if I'm so excited by Didion or the genre as a whole. Either way, I think I've got a whole lot more great reads ahead of me.

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.

Ryan Chapman

This book is amazing. It's been so long since a writer so perfectly mirrored my own sense of ontology, and what it would sound like if I was a genius essayist and distiller of my time. I will now proceed to read several more books by Didion.


I found this collection less compelling than originally expected. I own that giant omnibus edition of all Didion's non-fiction (before Magical Thinking), and have made it a little project of mine to read a book from it every summer. Last summer I was astonished by Slouching Towards Bethlehem which seemed to me the perfect integration of Didion's personality (neurotic, disaffected, perhaps even slightly out of touch with reality) and her journalistic eye for her particular moment in history. The White Album features a few stunning moments of this talent: most recognizable in the first eponymous essay, Didion's unique knack for writing herself as the voice of a generation breaks through. Somehow her vertigo, her sleepwalking through a period in the 60s, appears so breathtakingly salient for a tale riddled with the Manson murders, Jim Morrison's crotch-fire, Janis Joplin's drink-of-choice, and a neighborhood filled with transients on month-to-month leases. Didion herself never overwhelms in her best essays, and "The White Album" is possibly the best example of that in this collection.Read also "The Women's Movement," "In the Islands," "In Hollywood," and "Quiet Days in Malibu" for essays along those lines.There are others that feature interesting, if unfulfilling, sketches of a moment in time, an event, a place: almost the entirety of the second section of the books is made up of these sorts of drafts. None particularly grabbed me, but none were bad, either. "In the Mall" was perhaps the best of this 'type' - mainly because Didion actually taught me something about mall culture, its rise, it organization, and so forth in that essay."In Bed" largely exemplifies the qualities of Didion that I imagine many people hate: she's pathetically inward-looking, blind to her own class privilege, and, well, whinging in this essay. Her casual reference to a migraine brought on by an unpleasant encounter with "the help" was, quite frankly, somewhat monstrous. In an essay intended to draw sympathy for those who suffer migraines (believe me, I'm not a hater in this regard - my mother's always had problems with migraines), Didion mostly just alienates her reader.Her essays on Doris Lessing and O'Keeffe are both quite lovely, maybe more akin to criticism than journalism, though. I haven't read enough Lessing, either, to know whether or not I agree with Didion on her. 4 stars, though, for the best of the bunch. As I said, only one essay--"In Bed"--is an unpleasant experience. Many are just unmemorable, in a way I haven't encountered before with Didion (from Slouching, Magical Thinking, and selections from her later work). If nothing else, read "The White Album" as soon as you can.


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.

Juanita Rice

She's a marvelous writer, a serious writer, she creates a unique kind of reportage: half personal and reflective, half researched and detailed.But this reportage came from the most intense personal, reflective, detailed decade of my life perhaps, and its almost willful lack of conclusion or expressed opinion reminded me of when I, too, thought I could be an esteemed spectator of society.I read each of the pieces herein, impressed with intelligence and writing ability, but rather bored and disappointed to think that the period sixties-seventies could be treated without any reference to the larger issues. To report on the phenomenon of the Manson murders by talking about the personality and fashion-sense of a witness thereto, is inadequate. It may have been more impressive at the time when the reader's mind was more full of the details, and opinions about the events.I finally realized my scattered notes do not add up to a coherent review any more than the book added up to something coherent for me.


I found it either great or forgettable. The title essay was an astounding piece of writing, perfectly reflecting her shattered sense of self, time and place in the way she tells fragments of stories she came across in a variety of places, and how they are all connected in some way that she cannot quite manage herself, and which she ultimately leaves behind as she moves from a shabby, haunted part of Hollywood to find peace in Palos Verdes, which to me always feels like the end of the Earth. The section on California resonated with me, as a California resident who looks upon our public works and public figures with chagrin rather than disgust. I'm not sure a non-Californian would get as much out of these chapters, particularly the one on CalTrans. It's also amazing to think about Jerry Brown being governor back then, and again now. The section on women I compared unfavorably with Nora Ephron's "Crazy Salad" which I recently read, and which I felt had a clearer point of view. The section entitled "Sojourns" snuck up on me. The long essay on Hollywood was enjoyable, though not anything particularly new for me, as I have been around the industry for quite a while. "On the Road", "On the Mall" and "In Bogota" all eventually won me over, though I cannot remember why anymore, which surprises me since I read them yesterday. I guess I should have had my highlighter handy. "On the Morning After the Sixties" disappointed me because I had high hopes due to the opening title essay. I like "Slouching Toward Bethlehem" better.


After her famous Slouching Toward Bethlehem, this is her next book in the same vein. It launched me onto my two year long Didion obsession durring which time I read everything she'd ever written. I even watched that horrible Redford movie she co-scripted the screenplay for. Didon is a consumate prose stylist. Like Poe or Williams her writing is almost a code, a denuded, sheer script that eludes the reader with its dead-pan incisiveness. But in the end I realized that her early works are so powerful because of who she was and what she was writing about-- it was all in the time & place. The moment made her. Hence the increasingly dreadful later books. Read Barbara Grizzuti Harrison's lively criticism of Didion's person and style. Ultimately I came to agree-- she's a nasty little fascist.


Published in 1979, The White Album is a collection of essays exploring and surveying the culture, politics and effects of the Sixties, written by Joan Didion, a woman, a journalist and a Californian, who experienced it from the inside out. As a student at Berkely, a wife and mother in her home on Franklin Avenue -- a house in the California neighborhood referred to as the “senseless killing neighborhood” -- and a writer with a press pass, Didion had the opportunity, or misfortune, to experience the Sixties from the core of the chaos. With these essays she seeks to report, understand and, so it seems, recover from these times. The introductory essay, for which the collection is titled, focuses on the violence and irrationality of the era, Didion’s experience of it, and her response to it. The piece touches on civil unrest, racism, drugs, senseless murders, and a Doors recording session in which Jim Morrison lights a match and lowers it to the fly of his vinyl pants while everyone watches and nobody reacts. “There was a sense that no one was going to leave the room, ever,” Didion comments of the scene in the recording studio -- alluding to the tumultuous period as a whole, the decade in which the “improbable had become the probable, the norm.” Also in this essay, Didion explains that it was not uncommon for strangers to approach one’s door, or even to open it and let themselves in -- the way the Fergusons had come to be at Ramon Novarro’s door and Charles Manson at Rosemary and Leno LeBianca’s home. She recounts an instance when such a stranger had entered her home and stood looking at her for some time until he spotted her husband on the stair landing. “‘Chicken Delight,’ he said finally, but we had ordered no Chicken Delight, nor was he carrying any.” A psychological report of the author, included in “The White Album,” (written when Didion suffered an attack of vertigo and nausea) evidences Didion’s fear and vulnerability for the world she lived in. The doctor’s report details her “failing defenses”, alienation, pessimism and withdrawal. But in hindsight, Didion claims: “an attack of vertigo and nausea does not now seem to me an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.” The remaining essays report on a variety of issues pertinent to the period and place: water, politics, the feminist movement, bureaucracy, construction projects, motorcycle gangs, religious sects, student protests, and the movie industry. And, always, there is a subjectivity to these pieces, a subjectivity for which Didion’s been criticized because she is, after all, a journalist. However, it is precisely this subjectivity, this personal element -- Didion’s observations, criticisms, personal wonder and confusion -- that works so successfully in this collection. Didion’s emotional and psychological state in the late-Sixties reflects the state of her generation, the confounded state of the country.

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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