Joan Didion Shares Her Favorite Books of All Time

Aside

Those of you who follow American literary culture carefully mayJoaninthe60s recently have heard that a documentary about Joan Didion’s life and writings is slated to be released in Fall 2015.  The documentary, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live, is being produced by Susanne Rostock and noted actor/director Griffin Dunne (Dunne is the nephew of John Gregory Dunne, who was both Didion’s husband and screen writing partner for more than 30 years, and about whose death she wrote so eloquently in The Year of Magical Thinking).

As part of the Kickstarter campaign to raise enough money to complete the film, Didion Joan todaysupporters, including yours truly, received a hand-written list of Didion’s favorite books as a thank you.  Didion’s essays and political writings are heavily influenced by many of her contemporaries of the 60s and 70s, particularly other New Journalists such as Norman Mailer, Truman Capote and Tom Wolfe. When it came to fiction, though, she largely draws on authors writing one or two generations before her, including Ernest Hemingway, John O’Hara, James Baldwin and Ford Madox Ford. Didion is particularly noted for first mastering, then outshining, Hemingway when it comes to his “iceberg” theory of writing, which posits that what is deliberately left off the page resonates more deeply than what does appear (i.e., how the author’s use of specific words, syntax, repetition, rhythm and cadence enables readers to implicitly understand what lies beneath the surface of the text itself, or what we today call “the emotional subtext”).

Here then are the favorite books and authors that Didion turns to time and time again:

  • A Farewell to Arms (1929) by Ernest Hemingway
  • Victory (1914) by Joseph Conrad
  • Guerrillas (1975) by VS Naipaul
  • Down and Out in Paris and London (1933) by George Orwell
  • Wonderland (1971) by Joyce Carol Oates
  • Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Bronte
  • The Good Soldier (1915) by Ford Madox Ford
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Crime & Punishment (1866) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • Appointment in Samarra (1934) by John O’Hara
  • The Executioner’s Song (1979) by Norman Mailer
  • Washington Square, Portrait of a Lady, The Bostonians, Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl, Daisy Miller, The Aspern Papers, The Turn of the Screw all by Henry James (1843-1916)
  • Speedboat (1976) by Renata Adler
  • Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and Notes of a Native Son (1955) by James Baldwin
  • The Berlin Stories (1945) by Christopher Isherwood
  • Poetry of Robert Lowell, W.H. Auden and Wallace Stevens

Just as she was influenced by these writers and others, so too has Didion influenced writers of my generation. Indeed, I read my first Didion novel, The Book of Common Prayer, the summer I graduated from Mount Holyoke–and then went on to devour everything she has ever published. If any of my own fiction or essays resonate at all with readers, it is thanks to her.

If you haven’t yet had occasion to read her work or only know her more recent books (she is well into her eighties now and rather frail), the best place to start would be with her brilliant series of essays, Slouching Into Bethelehem, or the novel Democracy, both of which are readily available from your local library or independent bookstore.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Sandi Sonnenfeld
Founder & Managing Editor
The Lyon Review

Advertisements

Novel Excerpt: The Writing Circle

Now In Paperback

Corinne Demas is a professor of English at MHC and a Fiction Editor of The Massachusetts Review. She is the award-winning author of numerous books for children and adults, including two short story collections, four novels, a memoir, Eleven Stories High: Growing up in Stuyvesant Town, 1948—1968, and a collection of poetry, The Donkeys Postpone Gratification. Her new Young Adult novel, Everything I Was, will be published in April. Her children’s books include The Littlest Matryoshka, Saying Goodbye to Lulu, and Always in Trouble.

We gratefully acknowledge Hyperion Books for letting us include this excerpt from Corinne’s novel The Writing Circle which is available in paperback for the first time.

Nancy

It was the day of  testicular cancer. Nancy (a name that no one was given anymore) had laid out the offprints from various medical journals on her desk the night before, but she hadn’t looked at any of them yet. The monthly newsletter she edited had a dozen articles an issue, and she usually spent a day collecting material for each article, and a day reading through it, boiling it down, and writing it up. The newsletter was published under the name of a university medical school, but Nancy was its major author. An editorial board of physicians at the hospital—whose names were used for PR—sometimes suggested subjects for her, but mostly it was she who came up with the topics covered each month. She kept her ear out for what people were worried about, health crises that hit the local news (like the deadly strain of E. coli bacteria that had contaminated baby spinach) and the usual seasonal concerns. She did articles about lower back pain when spring gardening season arrived, articles about skin cancer as summer approached, and articles about frostbite at the start of winter. She farmed out some of the work to freelance writers (she had once been one of them), but she rewrote all the articles herself. The narrative voice she had perfected was professional but jaunty. She sounded like an authority, but her tone was upbeat, even when the article was ultimately informing the reader about some hideous condition that involved suffering, disfigurement, and certain early death.

“We are not in the business of scaring people” is what the physician who had started the newsletter and hired her years before had said. “We’re in the business of informing them and helping them make wise choices about their health.”

The wise choice about testicular cancer, Nancy knew from an article she’d done a year before, was to wear boxers rather than briefs and to be wary of bicycling. But there was now some new information about tumors and heat, and it was time for a follow-up. The word cancer in the headline was a certain draw for readers.

She was making herself a cup of tea when the phone rang. It was Bernard.

Continue reading

Influences

Aside

What writers or books have most impacted you as a person?   Literature can have profound influence on who we are, what we do for a living, how we think or what we care about.  For example, a survey conducted several years ago by the American Bar Association asked its members what made them decide to be a lawyer.  Overwhelmingly, ABA attorneys cited the character of Atticus Finch from Harper Lee‘s To Kill a Mockingbird for inspiring them to pursue the law. Of course the fact that Gregory Peck played Atticus in the film version might have played a role in the decision too!

For writers, the work of fellow authors, particularly those we encounter when we are first beginning our literary careers can literally shape not only how we write, but what we write about.

To get the discussion started, we asked some of our  editors and contributors to share insights into the writers who most influenced their literary aspirations and why.  We encourage all our readers to join in the discussion as well using the comments form below and participate in all our Talkback/Discussions on Community Forum.