Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Joan Didion’

16 JANUARY, 2015

Joan Didion on Driving as Secular Worship and Self-Transcendence

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“Participation requires a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway.”

Many years ago, an imaginative campaign for Mini Cooper reframed driving, something drudgerous, as motoring, something joyful. It became an instant success and received every major industry award, including a Cannes Lion. The young creative director who dreamed it up — Steve O’Connell, an old friend with whose encouragement Brain Pickings was born back in the day, and a brilliant creative mind always looking for the deeper longings beneath human behavior — was hailed as a rising star and went on to start a new kind of creative agency. The genius of his idea was that it tapped into a fundamental yearning to bring more mindfulness and presence to the ordinary activities of our daily lives — the same impulse that Thoreau tickled when he reframed the ordinary activity of walking as the art of sauntering.

But the original champion of driving as more-than-driving, as an experience more transcendent than simply propelling a vehicle over pavement and more present than mindlessly getting from point A to point B, is none other than Joan Didion — she of world-reorienting wisdom on self-respect, grief, and the value of keeping a notebook.

Joan Didion by Julian Wasser

In an essay about California’s freeway system in her altogether sublime 1979 collection The White Album (public library), Didion writes:

The freeway system … is the only secular communion Los Angeles has. Mere driving on the freeway is in no way the same as participating in it. Anyone can “drive” on the freeway, and many people with no vocation for it do, hesitating here and resisting there, losing the rhythm of the lane change, thinking about where they came from and where they are going. Actual participants think only about where they are. Actual participation requires a total surrender, a concentration so intense as to seem a kind of narcosis, a rapture-of-the-freeway. The mind goes clean. The rhythm takes over. A distortion of time occurs, the same distortion that characterizes the instant before an accident.

Drawing from 'Mr. Bliss,' the little-known children's book J.R.R. Tolkien wrote and illustrated for his own kids. Click image for more.

Illustrating the idea that kindred minds often arrive at the same conclusions about certain aspects of the human experience, Didion quotes from the 1971 book Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies by Reyner Banham, a work of enduring genius:

The freeways become a special way of being alive … the extreme concentration required in Los Angeles seems to bring on a state of heightened awareness that some locals find mystical.

The White Album remains one of the best essay collections ever published. Complement it with Didion’s all-time favorite books, then revisit Vanessa Redgrave’s beautiful reading from Didion’s memoir of mourning.

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06 JANUARY, 2015

Joan Didion’s Favorite Books of All Time, in a Handwritten Reading List

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A living anatomy of influences, from Brontë to Baldwin.

Having long lamented the dearth of reading lists by female cultural icons — amid a wealth of excellent but chromosomally skewed ones by such luminaries as Leo Tolstoy, Alan Turing, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Stewart Brand, Carl Sagan, and Neil deGrasse Tyson — I set out to find a worthy counterpoint. And what worthier addition than Joan Didion, one of the most singular and influential writers of our time, whose reflections on self-respect and grief are nothing short of life-changing?

Thanks to directors Susanne Rostock and Griffin Dunne, Didion’s nephew, who are making a documentary about her, I was delighted to obtain a list of the beloved author’s all-time favorite books. Given her strong convictions about the value of keeping a notebook, it’s at once utterly unsurprising and utterly delightful that the reading list is penned in her own hand, on a page of her notebook:

  1. A Farewell to Arms (public library) by Ernest Hemingway
  2. Victory (public library) by Joseph Conrad
  3. Guerrillas (public library) by V.S. Naipaul
  4. Down and Out in Paris and London (public library) by George Orwell
  5. Wonderland (public library) by Joyce Carol Oates
  6. Wuthering Heights (public library) by Emily Brontë
  7. The Good Soldier (public library) by Ford Madox Ford
  8. One Hundred Years of Solitude (public library) by Gabriel Garcia Márquez
  9. Crime and Punishment (public library) by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  10. Appointment in Samarra (public library) by John O’Hara
  11. The Executioner’s Song (public library) by Norman Mailer
  12. The Novels of Henry James (public library): 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
  13. Speedboat (public library) by Renata Adler
  14. Go Tell It on the Mountain (public library) by James Baldwin
  15. Notes of a Native Son (public library) by James Baldwin
  16. The Berlin Stories (public library) by Christopher Isherwood
  17. Collected Poems (public library) by Robert Lowell
  18. Collected Poems (public library) by W.H. Auden
  19. The Collected Poems (public library) by Wallace Stevens

Complement with Didion on telling stories, why she writes, her answers to the Proust Questionnaire, and Vanessa Redgrave’s gorgeous reading from the author’s memoir, then revisit the greatest books of all time, as voted by 125 famous contemporary authors.

Here is a delectable taste of the Didion documentary:

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05 DECEMBER, 2014

Vanessa Redgrave Reads Joan Didion’s Harrowing ‘Blue Nights’

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“Time passes. Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.”

“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be,” Joan Didion (b. December 5, 1934) wrote in her remarkable memoir of the year following her husband’s death after forty years of marriage. John Dunne died suddenly of a heart attack on December 30, 2003, as the couple’s only child, their daughter Quintana, lay comatose in a hospital ICU with complications from pneumonia. On October 4, 2004, Didion began writing her memoir and spent 88 days on the manuscript, completing it on New Year’s Eve. Midway through the author’s book tour and shortly before she received the National Book Award, Quintana died. She was thirty-nine.

It takes a rare person to retain the capacity — the desire — to be wise, let alone wry, in the face of such tragedy. And yet that is what Didion did in embarking on a second memoir, the spectacular Blue Nights (public library | IndieBound), rising above the uncommonly cruel cards life had dealt her to write with exceptional candor and grace about grieving her daughter, mourning her mistakes as a parent, and confronting her own mortality.

Few things could elevate Didion’s already exalted art of bearing witness to life and death. But one cold November night not too long ago, as I sat on a heavy wooden chair at St. John the Divine — the iconic New York cathedral where Quintana had spoken her wedding vows eleven years earlier — and awaited Vanessa Redgrave’s performance of Blue Nights to the accompaniment of legendary jazz trumpeter Jimmy Owens, I knew something unrepeatable was about to take place, something transformational and transcendent.

Redgrave and Didion have more than their decades-long friendship in common. Four years after Quintana’s death, the great English actor lost her own daughter Natasha, a childhood friend of Quintana’s, to brain injury after a skiing accident. Two years earlier, Redgrave had played Didion in a Broadway adaptation of The Year of Magical Thinking. But the grimly uncanny parallel of maternal loss brought a far deeper dimension of mutuality to Redgrave’s performance of Blue Nights. As her graceful, coolly expressive voice spills from the altar into the nave and echoes, godlike, across the cathedral, one can’t help feeling — at least I couldn’t help feeling — a brush at once chilling and beautiful with the unanswerable questions that line the vaulted ceiling between life and death.

Time passes.

Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.

In the introduction to Blue Nights, Didion explains the book’s title:

In certain latitudes there comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue. This period of the blue nights does not occur in subtropical California, where I lived for much of the time I will be talking about here and where the end of daylight is fast and lost in the blaze of the dropping sun, but it does occur in New York, where I now live. You notice it first as April ends and May begins, a change in the season, not exactly a warming — in fact not at all a warming — yet suddenly summer seems near, a possibility, even a promise. You pass a window, you walk to Central Park, you find yourself swimming in the color blue: the actual light is blue, and over the course of an hour or so this blue deepens, becomes more intense even as it darkens and fades, approximates finally the blue of the glass on a clear day at Chartres, or that of the Cerenkov radiation thrown off by the fuel rods in the pools of nuclear reactors. The French called this time of day “l’heure bleue.” To the English it was “the gloaming.” The very word “gloaming” reverberates, echoes — the gloaming, the glimmer, the glitter, the glisten, the glamour — carrying in its consonants the images of houses shuttering, gardens darkening, grass-lined rivers slipping through the shadows. During the blue nights you think the end of day will never come. As the blue nights draw to a close (and they will, and they do) you experience an actual chill, an apprehension of illness, at the moment you first notice: the blue light is going, the days are already shortening, the summer is gone. This book is called “Blue Nights” because at the time I began it I found my mind turning increasingly to illness, to the end of promise, the dwindling of the days, the inevitability of the fading, the dying of the brightness. Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.

Complement with Didion on self-respect, why she writes, and her answers to the Proust Questionnaire.

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