The White Album

The White Album by Joan Didion

publication date: 1979
pages: 223
ISBN: 0-671-22685-1

Joan Didion’s The White Album is a collection of articles written by Didion for various publications from 1968 to 1978. The articles are divided topically into five parts: 1) introductory; 2) California, where Didion lived during this period; 3) women; 4) a part she titled “Sojourns” and I would describe as essays examining how we interact with ourselves and the space we inhabit; and 5) reflections on living through the 1960s. The collection presents the absurdity and tenuousness of American life. Although the articles were written over 30 years ago, they still pop with relevance and wit.

My favorite part of The White Album was probably the chance to get a contemporary account of the 1960s. I hear pronouncements about what the decade was and what it meant, but reading about it through the eyes of Didion felt more authentic than any modern-day remembering. Reading Didion’s perception, which is admittedly bleak and almost defeatist, I came away with the impression that the 1960s were a parody of themselves. People actually said “Dig it” back then; and not just any people: lawyers! And all the way back in 1975, Didion spoke of shopping malls as places that “recall words and phrases no longer quite current. Baby Boom. Consumer Explosion. Leisure Revolution. Do-It-Yourself Revolution. Backyard Revolution. Suburbia.” Musicians seemingly fell into this arrangement of self-satire. Didion, in discussing some musicians she met over the years, stated:

John and Michelle Phillips [of The Mamas and the Papas], on their way to the hospital for the birth of their daughter Chynna, had the limo detour into Hollywood in order to pick up a friend, Anne Marshall. This incident, which I often embroider in my mind to include an imaginary second detour, to the Luau for gardenias, exactly describes the music business to me.”

Didion also made several memorable and cheeky comments about her home state of California. For example, she describes Los Angeles as “a city dedicated to the illusion that all human endeavor tends mystically west, toward the Pacific.” Additionally, Didion blithely mentions California’s museum-goers and characterizes Malibu’s J. Paul Getty Museum’s collection as “quite inaccessible to generations trained in the conviction that a museum is meant to be fun, with Calder mobiles and Barcelona chairs.”

The White Album also amply discusses more weighty topics, such as the Black Panthers and the Vietnam War. Every topic examined by Didion, from dam engineering to student protests to ocean lifeguards, was handled with aplomb and astuteness, which makes The White Album a satisfying and meaningful read.

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews:

London Review of Books
Christa Lawler: Making sentences.  Putting them here.
Ned Stuckey-French

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