Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Every Word in Its Proper Place

 From Charlotte Allen at Law and Liberty:

Every book by Joan Didion is a short book. Her two most famous, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968), and The White Album (1979), are 238 and 222 pages respectively, and the most widely read of her five novels, Play It As It Lays (1970), is just a little longer, at 240 pages. Her recent memoirs, The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), and Blue Nights (2011), chronicling the deaths of her husband, the novelist John Gregory Dunne (heart attack), and her adopted daughter, Quintana (acute pancreatitis), clock in at 240 and 208 pages. This latest book, a collection of reprinted magazine essays and book forwards titled Let Me Tell You What I Mean, is a mere 149 pages, although a 35-page introduction by Hilton Als, a drama critic for the New Yorker, pads the total up to a more respectable 184, so it is not quite Didion’s shortest book, which seems to be Salvador (1983), a 110-page repackaging of two articles she wrote for the New York Review of Books about a trip she and Dunne had made to that Central American country nearly forty years ago when the hordes of journalists who descended there to cover its left-right civil war liked to leave out the “El” in its name, in contrast to today, when El Salvador’s chief interest to journalists is that Donald Trump reportedly called it a “s—hole” in 2018.

Let Me Tell You What I Mean, besides being one of Didion’s shortest books, is also one of her smallest physically, at 5 by 8 inches, so a reader is entitled to wonder whether she is getting her money’s worth at the $23 list price. For nearly the same price, $23.99, for example, one can purchase the Library of America’s Joan Didion: The 1960s & 70s (2019), a fat, 980-page compilation of five entire books of hers, including Slouching, Play It, and The White Album.

Six of the twelve essays in Let Me Tell You What I Mean are reprints of columns that Didion, alternating with Dunne, wrote for The Saturday Evening Post for several years until the magazine’s demise in 1969. All six date from the same year, 1968, and because the Didion/Dunne columns had a word limit of about 1,200 words, they are very short essays indeed, and it is one of the marvels of a book with 5 by 8-inch pages that a 1,200-word essay can stretch out to fill seven of those pages. One of the Saturday Evening Post offerings, “Pretty Nancy,” in which Didion watches Nancy Reagan, the wife of the governor of California and not yet the wife of the president of the United States, fake the picking of rhododendron blossoms from her Sacramento garden for a television shoot, also appeared as a reprint in shortened form in The White Album, so here it is, in a sense, a reprint of a reprint. Another double reprint in Let Me Tell You What I Mean is “Why I Write,” which appeared first as an article in the New York Times Magazine in 1976, then as an entry in an anthology titled The Writer on Her Work in 1980 before it landed here. A third essay, “On Being Unchosen by the College of One’s Choice,” dating from that year of magical Saturday Evening Post reprint thinking, 1968, about the rejection letter she had received from Stanford as a high-school senior that obliged her to attend the University of California-Berkeley instead, has been posted on the now-defunct website College Admission since at least 2013. (Read more.)


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