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


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.

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.


Dear Shevaun, You left a self-addressed envelope, the size of a note card, in the Duluth Public Library’s copy of “The White Album,” a collection of essays by Joan Didion. Your name as both the sender and receiver. Both address labels indicate an association with the University of Florida. One is decorated with a UF, the other a cartoonish profile of a cartoon gator, its snout hanging out of a decorative oval. Neither label is very artistic minded, not the finest work of a graphic designer. I doubt this is your fault, that you are the graphic designer in question, though you might have selected these two designs from eight other versions and you most certainly were the one to decide they were at least good enough to stick to this envelope. I assumed, Shevaun, that you were older. Perhaps of the same generation as Didion. That you had checked out “The White Album” for the same reason I might revisit the movie “Adventures in Babysitting” or Debbie Gibson’s “Shake Your Love.” A nostalgia for the late 1960s in California. The Manson era. Black Panthers, the Doors sans Morrison trying to record an album without the vocalist known for wearing black leather pants without underwear. I imagined you looked like Didion, whom Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times once described -- using Didion’s own words from “A Book of Common Prayer” -- as possessing “an extreme and volatile thinness … she was a woman … with a body that masqueraded as that of a young girl.” I imagined you as widowed and crafty. A woman keeping the same strict schedule for almost half a century. A woman who could write a recipe book filled with meals staring Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup. A woman with things that went in certain places. I was wrong. I Googled you. You are maybe in your mid-30s or en route. And your education is of a certain level that damn-near paralyzes me when I consider the quagmire of student loan debt you must be seeped in. My wallet weeps for you, Shevaun, and it’s weeping louder than my admiration for your commitment to furthering your education. Did you finish “The White Album,” S? Or did the envelope mark the spot where you said: “I’m feeling you, Joan. But I just can’t, right now, give a shit about water treatment and highway systems. I was with you through the piece on the end of the 1960s. And if I’d gotten there, I might have enjoyed the one about your migraines and how you’ve learned that suffering through them is like a form of yoga. Then the book was due and you just didn’t renew it. Or maybe that envelope marks the point where you said: “Screw this rental. I’m buying!” I don’t remember where you parked your envelope, but if this is the case I bet it is where Didion says: “I am a thirty-four-year-old woman with long straight hair and an old bikini bathing suit and bad nerves sitting on an island in the middle of the Pacific waiting for a tidal wave that will not come.” That’s the sentence I read over and over again while sitting at a tall top table at Subway, unsure of why it snagged my attention. It’s an easy sentence. A descriptive sentence. The sentences around it provide perspective: her marriage is on a precipice. There have been tidal wave warnings. Her daughter wanted to go for a swim. Maybe it’s just the idea of picturing Didion as a thirty-four-year-old when for all of my life she has been post-thirty-four. And maybe it’s because I have a fortune teller’s view of her future. Many decades later the tidal wave will come and that tidal wave is “The Year of Magical Thinking.” Writing, Shevaun, is a weird thing. I can give or take Joan Didion. Her curiosities aren’t necessarily mine. The essays on water treatment and the the highway system. But when she turns an eye on herself, buying a dress for Linda Kasabian, witness in the prosecution of Charles Manson or on her first book tour and ordering a Shirley Temple from room service for her daughter, I take her. I take her like the Lothario on the cover of a bodice ripper, chest like fine leather upholstery and hair like a windsock.Best Wishes, Christa


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 decided to read this book given its title and the promise of learning something new about the Manson murders and the 1960s; the book disappointed on all counts. Didion deals with Manson in the most cursory manner--namely, reflecting on her having hob-nobbed with the bourgeoisie whom Manson targeted. Although all of the essays in the book were written during the late 60s to 70s, the cultural/political milieu of the times is barely addressed. Had the essays not been dated, one might reasonably make the case that they could have been written at any time in the late 20th/early 21st century. I'm not sure why I even decided to complete this book. Everything beyond the first chapter is dry and uninteresting. Didion's a good writer for sure, but this book wreaks of privilege--recurrent musings on life in Hawaiian and Malibu, vacationing abroad in South America, touring the US to promote a book. Other parts of the book offer brief anthropologic reflections on the dullest of dull topics--supermarkets, orchids, traffic on the LA freeways. There are some tidbits of interesting content here and there, and it's possible that an anthropologist proper could have put an intriguing spin on these otherwise dry topics; Didion comes up short. In full disclosure, I switched to reading the White Album after having had to return Patti Smith's excellent Just Kids to the library less than a quarter of the way through. Smith's memoir covers much of the same time period, but hers a tale of struggle and self-exploration that intimately considers the time and place (NYC). I suppose the comparison of the two works may be a bit unfair, but it colored my impressions of The White Album. I look forward to returning to Just Kids.


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

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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Kim Phipps

It amazes and almost embarrasses me that I have never read anything by Joan Didion before. Not surprisingly, many of my wonderfully literate friends are already fans. These essays are so perfectly and precisely written. Her voice is very much a woman's voice, and is unapologetically personal, yet there is a refreshing austerity in her prose. (I HATE to sound sexist, but I wish more young women writers would read and learn from her in this era of the blah blah blog-like books) She is droll, but not funny. In fact, I had to put this book down a few times, because I found it leaving me stirred up, with a strange sense of foreboding. The places and eras she speaks of are eerily familiar. She lived in and wrote a great deal about Los Angeles, but often about the late 60's and early 70's, which is recent enough to be vaguely remembered, but far back enough to be a very different time. I am anxiously awaiting my next book, and reading her take on events in later times.


Joan Didion is easily the finest essayist I've read— she could write the back of a cereal box and it'd come out a deeply moving meditation on corn flakes and their place in the quickly disintegrating American Dream. But this collection of pieces isn't as strong as "Slouching Towards Bethlehem", which preceded it— there's nothing on the order of "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream" or "Goodbye to All That", which respectively nailed California and New York in the 1960s (or so I've been told— since it was before I was born.) This book mainly concerns the deeply weird years in which the '60s turned in the '70s, and just about everyone was one Valium away from losing their shit completely. Didion's style here is a little looser than in the earlier book: many pieces, like the title story, feel like pastiches or studies for longer works. Maybe the style is appropriate to the times— most of the stories are about people who don't really know where they're going or exactly what they're doing or why they're doing it, and you get the sense that's true of the author most of all. No matter what the subject is, feminism or radical politics or Hollywood, Didion can never quite let go of her jaundiced, strangely disengaged and self-centric perspective— and that's what makes her such a fascinating writer.

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