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 didn’t love these essays until about the midpoint, “The Women’s Movement”, a devastatingly good piece about the watering-down of feminism in mid-century America, about the heartbreaking shift of a vitally important revolutionary movement as it lost touch with its ideological base and became ever more a vehicle appropriated by a leisure class, its goals moving away from seeking the possibility for an individual to create their own unique destiny unfettered by traditional obstacles and bias, and moving toward something like a seeking of the possibility for the mere prolongation of adolescence, a fear of growing up- more a form of escapism than a new form of liberation. This seems to me, even today, a very important and accurate assessment of not only what happened within various egalitarian movements in the last half of the 20th century, but a shift that occurred on whole societal, generational levels in America.After that midpoint in the book, pretty much every essay contains little revelations, little personal thunderstorms and continental illuminations. Didion does such a great job of balancing the internal and the external, the personal and the social, the personal and the political. Her cultural criticisms are downright measured but no less defanged (such intelligence and confidence need not be blustery), and what I find at the heart of many of the cultural and political essays is a distanced lamentation for an America that could have been but was lost or obliterated at some vague point in the latter days of the 60’s; could have been if we were less forgetful of history, less willing to take the path of least resistance, less entitled, less ready to meet our better selves, less easily resigned to things as they come packaged. She rarely seems angry; she often seems disappointed. Her prose is never shaken (this woman can write a hell of a balanced, beautiful sentence), but what we are given as her personality often seems on the verge of tearing in the winds of her times.Speaking of, wind is an important element in this collection. Wind blows from the Pacific through an open hotel room window as she anticipates a tidal wave and a possible divorce in Honolulu. Wind stirs up debris in the streets of Bogota. Wind blows and stokes fires across southern California that heat to such an extreme that birds explode in mid-air. Wind ripples the surface of the ocean as she observers a diver submerging into cold water thick with kelp. Wind has aided the coastal fires in coating the surface of the water with soot. The elements are ever present and interactive. Water nourishes Amado Vazquez’s thousands of orchids before fire destroys them. Light and water on the beaches of California and Hawaii coddle the idle survivors of old money. She is a great observer of rain, rain and its antithesis, dust. Water holds special sway over her recollections; the flow of water and the absence of water; water held back by dams, flow stations, the control and release of water- as it would anyone living in the arid southwest or California’s strange meteorological zones. Light, the viscosity of air in certain places, the various colors of vegetation and vegetation’s abundance or lack, even a person's voice or posture, their slightest motion- Didion is so conscious of the tone of a setting and the settings constituent pieces, be it a forest or an airport, a hotel room in New York or student demonstration, a stretch of coast or a shopping mall, the Hoover Dam or the Getty Museum. She is a master at uncovering the telling detail of a scene, and this includes the obscure detail ferreted out that in brief is revelatory of someone or something's broader historicity.Her voice is always re-centering in the human, the cultural, the societal- the orientation of the individual in respect to the massive undulations of the country and the epoch. A military graveyard attendant. Soldiers. Lifeguards. Botanists. Filmmakers. Painters. Writers. Politician’s wives. Radical activists. Murderers. Musicians. That she can project a totality of all of these things, and get at the heart of ideas that define a very specific time and place (California, USA, 1960’s and 70’s), and at the same time write it so that we feel that we have been allowed a purview of not only that era but of the intimate space where it touched a specific woman’s memory, is impressive indeed.


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


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 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.


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.

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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


It must say something that even though I'm shit-stuffed full after two and a half rounds of Thanksgiving plates of turkey and sides I feel compelled to review a book of essays I last read 6 years ago? That something may be: I don't have a girlfriend right now. Yes, the judges are willing to accept that as a correct answer. But they will also accept 'The White Album is a great book and Joan Didion is a great writer. And that answer is way easier for my ego to swallow so we're going to go with it.I'm not alone in thinking Joan Didion is a deadly and precise writer and intelligent thinker, but most people praise her writing style for it's short, terse, emotionless sentences. I don't happen to think Play It As It Lays is a good book. While I guess that goes a long way for people (people who also go out of their way to spout off about Hemmingway) what I really like about her style is how, thematically, it links together like a mosaic. Information in this book of essays and "Slouching Towards Bethleham" hits the reader from all sides and it is only when one finishes an essay is he or she able to realize what it was all about. I fucking love that. That's what life is. The not knowing. The not knowing again. The not knowing again, but this time something's going on, something's happening, something is compelling me through this day, this date, this conversation, this jog, this essay and then all of a sudden...oh, okay, that's it, and it hits you. And you finally know. Then of course, something happens and you realize you don't know shit and it's the not-knowing again and again until for a moment you do know. Life. period.Didion is a master at this mosaic style, weaving a narrative through disjointed paragraphs and asides, and it's fitting that she named this collection the White Album because the Beatles record of the same name consisted of songs coming in from all different band members (even Ringo) until the end of the session they said, okay, we now have all of the musical information we are going to get hit with, lets call it a record. For the skeptical reader, fear not because one of the best essays is the first one, 'The WHite Album, so you could read it in the book store and decide if you want to commit ten bucks to a writer that can change (or harmonize with) your life narrative. You should probably buy the book if you like the first essay as opposed to just reading it in the book store because Didion's husband just died of cancer and she probably has medical/grief bills to deal with and I'm assuming book sales help her. Although on the subject, I just read Miranda July's book of short stories in the book store from cover to cover and really liked it but didn't want her to have any of my money because then she could stay a hungry artist.


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 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.


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.


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.

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