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Note to shelf: An ode to Joan Didion

by Lorenza Mezzapelle January 14, 2020
Note to shelf: An ode to Joan Didion

Though I tend to deny it, I am definitely a judge-a-book-by-its-cover kind of person.

I most often pick up a book because I am attracted to it’s matte cover, geometric typeface, muted colors and overall minimalistic design. As a serial consumer of nonfiction, and someone who is drawn to interesting and simplistic book covers, it was about time that I delved into one of Joan Didion’s heartfelt memoirs.

My personal library is full to the brim, quite literally, as there is no more room and my books are everywhere; stacked on my night table, under my bed, on the floor near my shelf, on my desk, and in my closet, to name a few places. It consists mostly of autobiographies, memoirs, nonfiction, and a few of the classics that I always say I will read but can never seem to get into. Fiction has never quite done it for me. I guess what I look for in a book is that human aspect. Didion did not let me down.

Some might say that I am all too predictable, in that I decided to first read her renowned 2005 memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking.

Didion dances with death in the most matter-of-fact way. She is at once honest, raw, pessimistic, and truthful, offering her personal account of the impact of loss on her life. She records her thoughts, actions and mental state over the span of a year, as she deals with grief and mourning.

The writer’s life is often depicted in an unattainable and glamorous way, with many references to multiple flights from JFK to LAX and parties with famous musicians. Despite this, she manages to tackle topics that affect everyone, in a way that resonates with the reader and demonstrates that no amount of wealth can save one from the ramifications of loss.

Upon finishing the last few pages and closing the back cover of the book, I was left staggering at her eloquence and relatability. Didion left me with that “I wish I wrote that,” feeling that I am so rarely left with after reading a book.

However, I am not surprised that her work would feel me leaving this way. I first discovered Didion’s work through intensive research on the past editors of American Vogue, where Didion started her career. After stumbling upon her essay Self-Respect: It’s Source, It’s Power, I was immediately drawn to her history and her character, years before even picking up one of her novels. I aspire towards Didion’s level of journalistic and literary talent and yearn to possess a malleability that could bring my writing to anywhere from the glossy pages of Vogue, to the New York Times. At once personal and collective, her work reads like a personal memoir, but is journalistic at its core.

It is rare to find something that speaks to us on such a personal level, be it through friendships, romantic relationships, literature, or song. Didion’s words resonate with me in a way that no other person or thing has ever done before. From her heart wrenching account of life after her daughter’s passing in Blue Nights, to the exceptionally realistic helplessness you are left feeling after watching The Panic in Needle Park, Didion’s work remains raw, personal, and a perfect example of why words and writing hold such a significant place in the lives of many.

Her renowned quote “we tell ourselves stories in order to live,” truly lives up to its popularity, and most definitely resonates with me and my life. Words have been significant to me for as long as I could remember, both through good times and bad; I have finished an innumerable amount of novels, poetry books, and completed personal journals and notepads, filled with thoughts, quotes, personal essays, and short stories.

I, like Didion, and like many, have been telling myself stories in order to live. I have found comfort in her words, I have found familiarity in the echo of her voice as she recites passages from her works, be it in interviews or in the 2017 biographical documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. Time and time again, her poignant use of language proves the many ways in which good writing can provide one with consolation. Without a doubt, Joan Didion is the one person I would choose to invite as my celebrity dinner guest, the one famous person I would like to meet, and ultimately, the one writer who continues to remind me of why I write.

Graphic by @sundaeghost

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