The White Album by Joan Didion

The White Album is a 1979 book of Joan Didion’s essays. She wrote them between 1968 and 1978. They mostly chronicle her life in Southern California during that weird decade. Among the topics are a Doors recording session, a business that grows orchids, life in Malibu, how movies are made (it’s all about the deals and money), California’s water supply, the Hoover Dam, the women’s movement, Honolulu past and present, Georgia O’Keefe, Doris Lessing and the Manson murders. One of the topics she doesn’t write about is the Beatles’ White Album.

I’ve read quite a few of Didion’s books. She is a great writer. Sometimes I’ve had trouble understanding the point she is making. I didn’t have that problem this time. In the first few pages of the first essay, she explains her point of view:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live … We look for the sermon in the suicide, for the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. We interpret what we see, select the most workable of the multiple choices. 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.

Or at least we do for a while. I am talking here about a time when I began to doubt the premises of all the stories I had ever told myself, a common condition but one I found troubling…. I appeared, on the face of it, a competent enough member of some community or another, a signer of contracts and Air Travel cards, a citizen… I made gingham curtains for spare bedrooms, … put lentils to soak on Saturday night for soup on Sunday, made quarterly F.I.C.A. payments and renewed my driver’s license on time…

This was an adequate enough performance, as improvisations go. The only problem was that my entire education, everything I had ever been told or told myself, insisted that the production was never meant to be improvised: I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it. I was supposed to hear cues, and no longer did. I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no “meaning” beyond their temporary arrangement…

She made it through this especially disordered period, which lasted six years or so, but the fact that she went through it at all made it easier for me to understand her perspective on things. In these essays, she views the world from a distance, remarking on the interesting things she observes, some of which resist understanding. Shares her observations with us. It’s an excellent book.

How To Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell

Michel de Montaigne was a 16th century French nobleman who was active in politics but mostly concerned with writing essays. He may have been the first blogger. Bakewell portrays Montaigne as having a modern sensibility, although he followed the Stoics and Epicureans in some ways. Montaigneย wrote about all kinds of topics (including his kidney stones) and always tried to see both sides of an issue. He even tried to see life from his cat’s perspective. Much of his writing seems to have been thinking out loud as he mulled over his topics and went off on tangents. In that regard, sheย compares his essaysย to Tristram Shandy. I wonder if the actual essays are as good as advertised (all 1,000 pages of them).