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


Language is everything

Noah Richler’s What We Talk About When We Talk About War was nominated for a 2012 Governor General’s literary award. Photo by Madelayne Hajek.

For Canadian writer and journalist Noah Richler, maintaining a critical view of your country and its politics is paramount.

Born in Montreal, Richler studied classics and archeology at McGill and then moved on to study politics and economics at Balliol College at Oxford University in England. Subsequently, he worked for BBC Radio and then returned to Canada in 1998 to work at the National Post as the paper’s books editor. Richler’s first book, This Is My Country, What’s Yours, won the British Columbia National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction in 2007.

Although Richler has lived a great part of his life in England, he still feels very attached to his home country of Canada. “Going back and forth between Canada and Britain affected my outlook a lot,” he said, “because I feel very Canadian.”

Richler is no stranger to the Canadian literary world. His father, Mordecai Richler, Concordia’s most famous dropout, is one of Montreal and Canada’s most celebrated writers. Unlike his father, Richler sticks to non-fiction when it comes to his writing. “I think of myself as an essayist,” he said.

Like every other writer, Richler dedicates a lot of himself to his work. “I try to work at least five days a week,” he said. “I try to write everyday to remind myself that that’s what I do.”

When asked about his writing process Richler said, “when you find a book, or a book finds you, it determines its own rhythm. You work like mad and everything you see in the world around you has to do with the idea that you’ve chosen.”

Mainly preoccupied with Canadian identity Richler’s newest book, What We Talk About When We Talk About War, which was nominated for this year’s Governor General’s literary award for non-fiction, takes a critical look at the country Canada has become after multiple international wars.

Richler says he was inspired to write the book when he saw an interview between CBC’s Shelagh Rogers and Master Cpl. Paul Franklin, a soldier who was wounded in the Afghan war. In the interview, Franklin’s wife said that if Canada had pulled out of the war, her husband would have lost his legs for nothing. “That’s true,” said Richler, “but it’s also not an argument for staying.”

Richler addresses many issues in his new book, like the way politicians and the military use language to convince Canadians that we are a warrior nation.

“I was very upset at the language that was being used,” he said. When asked about the impact he would like his book to have on his readers, Richler said, “My book will be successful if it brings people’s attentions to the way we use language to permit different things.”

Richler often speaks in high schools because he understands the importance of reading. “I like speaking at schools,” he said, “it’s a very good discipline for me.” Richler recounts what it was like as a child to pick up a book, not like it and feel guilty about it. “You don’t like a book, don’t worry about it,” he said, “It’s not your fault. Just don’t stop reading because of it.”

Writing a book on war is a sombre topic and Richler hopes that his book will incite readers to take a more serious outlook on war. “When we go to war,” he said, “we should do it with gravity and lament. It’s a serious thing. We should really regret having to do it.”

With the recent success of What We Talk About When We Talk About War, which was published last April, one would expect Richler to sit back and enjoy the attention. However, writers are restless souls and he is already planning a new book.

What We Talk About When We Talk About War retails for $24.95 and is available from Chapters Indigo and

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