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Slouching Towards Bethlehem

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The first nonfiction work by one of the most distinctive prose stylists of our era, Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem remains, decades after its first publication, the essential portrait of America—particularly California—in the sixties.

It focuses on such subjects as John Wayne and Howard Hughes, growing up a girl in California, ruminating on the nature of good and evil in a Death Valley motel room, and, especially, the essence of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, the heart of the counterculture.

238 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1968

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About the author

Joan Didion

77 books12.3k followers
Joan Didion was born in California and lived in New York City. She was best known for her novels and her literary journalism.

Her novels and essays explore the disintegration of American morals and cultural chaos, where the overriding theme is individual and social fragmentation. A sense of anxiety or dread permeates much of her work.

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Profile Image for Julie.
Author 6 books1,864 followers
December 13, 2022
My mother was a freshman in college when I was a freshman in high school. Married at seventeen, her 1960s and 70s were spent as a young wife and mother of four. It wasn't until she divorced at thirty-six, the same year Ronald Reagan ushered in the folly of trickle-down economics and the prison-industrial complex, that she discovered "the sixties". She majored in English and one day brought home, as a reading assignment, a copy of Slouching Towards Bethlehem. I recall the cover: gun-metal gray with white lettering. I recall her clutching the book as though it were a lifeline, a rope to a past she never had. I felt the book must be some passageway to adulthood, some essentialness of feminism that both intrigued and bored me. I recall loving the title--the evocation of the Bible that seemed almost sacrilegious to me, a child of a conservative Christian family. Slouching . . . Bethlehem . . . nothing but trouble can come from such a book.

I wonder what my mother must have thought of this collection of essays about people, places, lifestyles so radically different than anything in her experience, yet which were happening simultaneous to her sheltered life. While her days were filled with Sesame Street, Tang, laundry, cutting crusts from bread for fussy her elementary school-kids' lunches, Joan Didion was writing of the counterculture of Haight-Ashbury, where runaways were drugged and traded as sex toys, used up and strung out by nineteen; of Howard Hughes buying up blocks of Las Vegas like she bought boxes of Cheerios; of Joan Baez, wispy, earnest, and reclusive in the Monterey County Courthouse, trying to save her Institute for the Study of Non-Violence from the squares who worried that the hippies would drive down their property values.

Did my mother dream California dreams? Did she wish for a New York interlude, to be young and in love, with a view of the Brooklyn Bridge, such as Joan Didion had in 1960s? Did she yearn for the warm waves of the Pacific curling on the sands of Hawaii? Such freedom young Didion had, such time to feel angst, to observe others, to write clear-eyed and fiercely about her time and place in a world where people filled their voids with drugs, sex, and rock-n-roll.

I imagine my mother reading about a gathering of earnest young activists and intellectuals "reluctant about gathering up their books and magazines and records, about finding their car keys and ending the day, and by the time they are ready to leave Joan Baez is eating potato salad with her fingers from a bowl in the refrigerator, and everyone stays to share it, just a little while longer where it is warm" and wishing she were in their midst, instead of pushing a shopping cart down the aisles of Pak-n-Save, filling it with boxes of Kraft Mac-n-Cheese and Hamburger Helper.

This collection of twenty essays, originally published in a variety of magazines, chronicles Didion's internal and external worlds at a singular time in modern American history. Her cool, unsentimental observations that have come to exemplify California during the mid 60s and 70s, her unwavering voice carrying the mantle of feminism, unafraid to admit how very angry and afraid she really is. Unabashedly admitting a lifelong crush on John Wayne, a manufactured, wooden caricature of the American man.

Perhaps it is this voice my mother held onto so tightly, searching in Didion's words for the key to self-expression, independence, and experimentation—all the things my mother missed as she moved straight from childhood to motherhood. Perhaps she longed to belong to Didion's California where
". . . time past is not believed to have any bearing on time present or future, out in the golden land where every day the world is born anew."

Oh, don't we all?
Profile Image for Jeffrey Keeten.
Author 3 books249k followers
December 23, 2021
”My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out.”

 photo Joan Didion_zpskq0hgc41.jpg

One of the cornerstones of friendship is developing some level of trust. It might be possible to be friends with Joan Didion, but the very thing that makes her a wonderful dinner companion, her wonderful insights into the human condition, will also be the very thing that will make it difficult to develop an intimacy like one should with a best friend. She talks about this difficulty in one of the essays in this collection. “‘The easiest kind of relationship for me is with ten thousand people,’ she said. ‘The hardest is with one.’”

She was asked to write an essay about John Wayne, and she wrote this fantastic scene of having dinner with him. I didn’t know what to expect. Was she going to fall in bed with him? Was she going to cut Wayne up into little pieces? Love him or hate him, the man was always consistently himself. The Duke always had to be the Duke. There was no down time from being the American icon of western films. I enjoyed this very Didion observation that she makes about Wayne: ”For a while it was only a nice evening, an evening anywhere. We had a lot of drinks and I lost the sense that the face across the table was in certain ways more familiar than my husband’s.”Wayne was renowned for getting everyone at his table drunk, and Didion was no exception.

These essays focus almost exclusively on California. Though, I wouldn’t call this collection an ode to her home state. Let’s just say the Bureau of Tourism for California didn’t choose to use any of her unflinching observations about the state. Her family has deep roots in California. They were early pioneers who invested in land and did very well. She realized this upbringing gave her a different perspective of life. ”I never felt poor; I had the feeling that if I needed money I could always get it. I could write a syndicated column for teenagers under the name “Debbi Lynn” or I could smuggle gold into India or I could become a $100 call girl, and none of it would matter.”

I will admit I have put off reading Joan Didion because I thought her essays might prove dated. From the very first essay I was disabused of that notion. These pieces are all from the 1960s and, nearly without exception, are as relevant today as they were when they were written. Couldn’t this comment be as insightful about our current situation as it was in the 1960s? ”Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then is when we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I suspect we are already there.”

I was expecting elegant writing, and certainly I got that, but what surprised me was the muscular nature of her prose. She hits you in the stomach, follows that with an uppercut, and she may not even let you get off the canvas before she hits you again. She might be small, but she is certainly scrappy. Her writing is as tight and crisp as a tuned piano wire. After I finished the book, I read that she had spent hours typing Hemingway’s prose into her typewriter to try and capture some of his style. This Hemingway connection runs counter to my perception of Didion, but maybe it is just an example of how difficult it is to wrap your arms around her and say this is Joan Didion. She would slide away from you and reemerge across the room in dark glasses with a smoldering cigarette trapped between her fingers, uplifted in the air, the smoke forming a question mark. Can you ever really know someone like Joan Didion? She is quiet. She is unassuming. She lets people talk, and when they mention something of interest to her, can’t you just hear her softly saying...tell me why you believe that?

These essays were trending subjects in the 1960s, but now they have, with infinite grace, metamorphosed into historical record. For those who follow my reviews, I can assure you there will be more Joan Didion in my reading queue over the coming months.

If you wish to see more of my most recent book and movie reviews, visit http://www.jeffreykeeten.com
I also have a Facebook blogger page at:https://www.facebook.com/JeffreyKeeten
Profile Image for emma.
1,871 reviews54.8k followers
February 15, 2023
joan forever!

i still like didion's longform (longest form?) writing the best, but in truth no one was doing it like her and no one is doing it like her and no one ever will.

absolutely one of a kind.

bottom line: the very best.

tbr review

the best you can look is if you're carrying a copy of this book around as you browse at an indie bookstore
Profile Image for Bill Kerwin.
Author 1 book81.9k followers
June 13, 2020

Days after Manson died, I kept thinking about him, how he and his Family had summoned the darkness at the heart of the Summer of Love. I remembered how surprised we all were, that the drugs and the smiles and the flowers had come to this, but then I thought, no, not all of us. Joan Didion would have understood; Joan Didion would not have been surprised.

Slouching Toward Bethlehem, a collection of magazine essays and Didion’s second book, is about many things, but mostly it is about ‘60’s California. In its first section “Life Styles in the Golden Land”—slightly longer than half the book--every piece but one is set in California: a San Bernadino Valley murder, profiles of California icons (John Wayne, Joan Baez, Howard Hughes), characteristic California political institutions (the Communist splinter group the CPUSA, the now defunct liberal think tank the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions), and the California nexus of the Hippie Explosion, San Franciso’s Haight-Ashbury district during the Summer of Love. (Even the short piece not set in California, “Marrying Absurd,” about the Las Vegas wedding industry, is about California and its culture too.)

But the California connection does not stop there. Didion was a product of the Sacramento Valley, the descendant of settlers who—before the Gold Rush—crossed the plains in a covered wagon (Joan’s great-great-great grandmother travelled with the Donner party, but, unlike the Donners, her family avoided the fatal short cut and instead followed the old Oregon Trail.) Thirty additional pages of Bethlehem, some of the most personal of the book, describe her California and how it has shaped her character and her perspective.. She recognizes that, even for a Native Daughter like herself, the oldest of California traditions are too recent to constitute roots, that the culture of the ‘60’s Golden Land is always changing: from orange groves to real estate to aerospace (and, later, to high tech and beyond). In her title essay, Didion lays bare the predispositions of the lost freeway children who inhabit the Haight in the late '60's: aimless, disconnected from culture, lacking the principles that might help them fashion a viable alternative, they are people for whom any hypnogogic amusement, any superficial enlightment, even a dark savior, will do.

You can learn much about the ‘60’s from this book, but its real pleasure lies in its elegant, sinewy prose. If there is a single clumsy sentence in this book, I failed to find it (and I am one of those irritating fellows who looks). Here is just a taste, from “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” a description of the San Bernardino Valley:
This is the California where it is easy to Dial-A-Devotion, but hard to buy a book.  This is the country in which a belief in the literal interpretation of Genesis has slipped imperceptibly into a belief in the literal interpretation of Double Indemnity, the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life's promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or a Sherry or a Debbi and a Tijuana divorce and return to hairdressers' school.  “We were just crazy kids” they say without regret, and look to the future.  The future always looks good in the golden land, because no one remembers the past.  Here is where the hot wind blows and the old ways do not seem relevant, where the divorce rate is double the national average and where one person in every thirty-eight lives in a trailer.   

Here is the last stop for all those who  come from somewhere else, for all those who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways.  Here is where they are trying to find a new life style, trying to find it in the only places they know to look:  the movies and the newspapers. 
Profile Image for Michael.
655 reviews964 followers
August 3, 2018
First published in 1968, Slouching Towards Bethlehem considers what happens when the center cannot hold and things fall apart: the three-part collection's twenty essays confront the onset of an age of cynicism in American political and social life. The first part contains pieces specific to California, the second personal essays, the third portraits of places significant to both Didion and America at the end of the 1960s. Didion's prose sprawls with meticulous detail, and is tinted with the journalist's ironic and aloof sensibility. At her best, Didion offers astute critiques of the failings and pretensions of the sundry parts of her nation. Favorite essays included "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," "On Keeping a Notebook," "On Self-Respect," and "Goodbye to All That."
Profile Image for Orsodimondo.
2,196 reviews1,819 followers
March 9, 2019

La ex casa dei Grateful Dead a 710 Ashbury Street.

Nonostante in un capitolo (questo libro raccoglie articoli usciti su riviste) dal titolo Non riesco a togliermi quel mostro dalla testa, la signora Didion esprima opinioni tranchant su Kubrick, Antonioni, Visconti, Bergman, dimostrando per la prima e unica volta che perfino lei può sbagliare, prendere cantonate e dire bestialità, ho amato questo libro e amo profondamente questa meravigliosa scrittrice, sentimento costruito su una breve intensa conoscenza (incontrata per la prima volta neppure cinque mesi fa, è la sua quarta opera che leggo e apprezzo a fondo).

Joan Didion in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco, nell’aprile del 1967.

Viene definita la migliore scrittrice vivente in lingua inglese (e io le auguro mille anni oltre gli 80 che compirà il 5 dicembre prossimo) e si dice che proprio nel giornalismo proponga il meglio di sé.
Il New Journalism, il giornalismo che è Letteratura, il giornalismo che è Arte: quello consacrato con la pubblicazione di “In Cold Blood”.

Io non saprei: la amo molto sia come romanziere che come scrittrice di memoir che giornalista.

Le cinque vittime del 9 agosto 1969 nella villa di Polanski al Benedict Canyon: da sinistra, Voityck Frykowski, Sharon Tate, Stephen Parent, Jay Sebring, and Abigail Folger.

Cos’è che colpisce in questa raccolta?
Il fatto che Joan Didion sia sempre dentro la narrazione, che il suo io sia in prossimità dell’oggetto del racconto.
Non nel modo fastidioso che spinge a riportare tutto l’universo a se stessi, a misurare abissi e cieli sul metro del proprio vissuto: ma con quella sua capacità di trasformare le proprie difficoltà e debolezze in leve di forza, informando e illuminando senza intromettersi nel racconto.

Ruth Ann Moorehouse e altre due ragazze di Charles Manson.

Didion non scrive per svelare, ma per capire, non scrive per stupire, ma per ‘leggere’ il suo tempo, riesce ad andare oltre il qui e l’ora con parole che rimarranno per sempre vere.

Poche volte si incontra una scrittura che dice così tanto di chi scrive. E ogni parola della Didion ci racconta di una donna fragile, ma dalle mente affilata, una donna problematica, ma forte e intensa… una narratrice in grado di toccare l’anima delle cose, e farla sembrare la cosa più facile del mondo.

Per quanto coinvolta, partecipe, vicina e attenta, Joan Didion è un’osservatrice molto acuta, che riesce a mantenere un distacco spontaneo per riuscire a cogliere una prospettiva singolare e precisa.
Joan Baez canta durante una manifestazione di protesta.

Didion descrive e racconta, senza commentare, un’America in trasformazione, molto diversa da quella in cui è nata e da quella emersa nel secondo dopoguerra – un paese in movimento verso un futuro che non sembra radioso, mentre il presente lo è: all’inizio degli anni Sessanta, gli US sono prosperi ed effervescenti – ma sono già un popolo e una terra che hanno perso l’innocenza, dove anche le voci alternative mostrano limiti e cadute, una terra dorata sostanzialmente allo sbando.
Didion è per certi versi un’anticipatrice, sicuramente uno sguardo senza schemi né veli.


Racconta un fatto di cronaca nera e la suspense divora il lettore.
Racconta di Joan Baez e in una frase riesce a racchiuderla tutta.
Racconta di San Francisco e la sua scrittura si fa jam come quelle dei Dead nel Golden Gate Park.
Racconta di sé, “sul tenere un taccuino”, e mi fa venire la pelle d’oca.

Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,599 reviews8,730 followers
March 1, 2016
"The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;"

- The Second Coming, Yeats


“I know something about dread myself, and appreciate the elaborate systems with which some people fill the void, appreciate all the opiates of the people, whether they are as accessible as alcohol and heroin and promiscuity or as hard to come by as faith in God or History.”
― Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem

I'm sure at some point Joan Didion will disappoint. I'm positive the honeymoon period will run out. I'll discover a fatal flaw, a series of articles, or a minor novel that she just 'phoned in', but not yet bitches.

Seriously, if prose could make me pregnant, I would now be Nadya Suleman.

I know this is just the normal hormonal response I get whenever I really seem to mesh or synch with an author or artist. I felt this way when I first read DFW's and McPhee's nonfiction. This is the same brain-storm that happened when I first read Delillo & Bellow's fiction; the same awe I felt when I walked into the Paris Opera and saw that giant Chagall ceiling hanging beyond that infamous, 7-ton bronze and crystal chandelier. Those same chills ran down my spine and flushed my face the first time I swallowed a Vicodin. I felt just as complete the first time I watched a Coen brothers movie. I also felt this the first time I discovered my arm naturally guided my hand to my lap. No, this isn't a revolution. It isn't even revolutionary. It a euphoria and I know it. I get it. I'm already cooling down. But I'm just going to leave the book here on my chest for awhile until my heart slows down a bit.
Profile Image for Justin Tate.
Author 7 books971 followers
April 9, 2019
First published in 1968 to wide popularity, this collection of essays and journalism is a time capsule to the 1960s, for better and for worse, and mostly relating to the experience from a California perspective. There's no question to its significance. When it was published, I suspect readers were thrilled to have someone finally describe life in blunt terms. Reading it today, I found its strengths still lie in the authentic, slice-of-life style. Since I didn't live through the '60s, it felt refreshing to read about the era through cold truths, personal feelings, news-worthy events, and overall mindset of the time. This is day-in-the-life type stuff, which is much lighter and somehow comes across more real than thick history books.

Overall, while I'm glad I read it for the educational value, I didn't feel riveted enough to ever turn the page eagerly. One of those you got to be in the right mood for.
Profile Image for Cheryl.
464 reviews607 followers
May 9, 2016
"To have that sense of one's intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference."

Somehow, I usually read Didion on a blue night, when it's so bright outside that I open my curtains to search for the moon; instead, what greets me is a pale hue of blue sky. When I read Blue Nights, I had a similar experience. These are the kind of nights that reminds a reader of what she is, of what she is not: "We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gist for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give." Oh how I would love to teach Didion's "On Self-Respect," if only to garner the provocative perspective of a generation not yet born when she experienced and wrote this collection.

People debate the essay form often; some think it is simply nonfiction, some are not even sure about the distinction between nonfiction, narrative nonfiction, memoir, and the personal essay. The art of nonfiction is intrinsically disconcerting and perhaps intentional in its derived eclecticism. Still, it is beautiful. Thank goodness we have modern essayists like Leslie Jamison to remind us of the form, an essayist who in my opinion, resembles Didion in style and concept. Any debate of the essay as an art form, should be silenced by Didion's slouching. Why did I take so long to read this, I asked myself as I palmed my forehead, for I drooled through each page, not even noticing when it was time to clear my desk for office hours with students.

These essays illuminate the America of the 1960s that will never exist again, and yet it is the America of today - the odd juxtaposition confuses, I know. Didion has managed to illustrate a landscape of hurt and pain, of music and money, of politics, drugs, rehabilitation, and gain. This is New York, this is California, this is a slouch towards Bethlehem. I was moved by her memoirs Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking; however, with this book, I was inspired by not only the stories and the essay form, but also by the art of the craft of narrative nonfiction in some of her pieces, this art that places a writer within the center of observation, and yet silences her persona.
The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.

Didion was a compulsive notetaker and eavesdropper. Because of this, we get stories about: the Los Angeles Santa Ana, a party in Beverly Hills, a story of Sacramento, a "hallucinatory" view of New York, a riff "on morality," a behind-the-scenes look at a Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, an intense look at acid, alcohol, promiscuity, and all of the hurt that evolves with flashing. Some things we see, we know we'll never see again.

I loved reading "Goodbye to All That," Didion's meditation on New York City, a place she loved and loathed, the city wherein she lost herself. Yet my favorite essay was "Where the Kissing Never Stops," an essay which allowed me to view myself, to think about those intrinsic values placed aside for work; after all, isn't this the beauty of the personal essay, that it teaches us something about ourselves? I found oneness with Joan Beaz, the artist, humanitarian, renegade, and recluse; the woman whose life Didion explores in this piece. Perhaps this is one of those essay collections that leaves each of us with something of ourselves:
The roles assigned to her are various, but variations on a single theme. She is the Madonna of the disaffected. She is the pawn of the protest movement. She is the unhappy analysand. She is the singer who would not train her voice, the rebel who drives the Jaguar too fast, the Rima who hides with the birds and the deer. Above all, she is the girl who 'feels' things, who has hung on to the freshness and pain of adolescence, the girl ever wounded, ever young.
Profile Image for leah.
311 reviews2,020 followers
March 20, 2022
like with any didion work, she always approaches her subjects with such precision and purpose. every language choice is intentional, every sentence is so eloquent, every detail is meticulously written. she perfectly captures the essence of 1960s california and its cultural politics, somehow making me nostalgic for a place and time i never even experienced. i haven’t read much else on the subject, but i can’t imagine anyone writing about california as well as joan didion.

my fave essays were: ‘some dreamers of the golden dream’, ‘slouching towards bethlehem’, ‘on keeping a notebook’, ‘goodbye to all that’.
Profile Image for Quinn Slobodian.
Author 15 books145 followers
September 3, 2007
I realize what is disturbing about these essays and what leaves the acrid aftertaste on the leftist tongue about Didion. And I don't think it has much to do with her relatively measured take on the drug-addled Haight-Ashbury scene. For better, but admittedly and sadly often for worse, the radical leftist imagination has been characterized by a willingness and a desire to leap out of our skin into the skin of others, to experience a jump of radical empathy in which the concerns of "they" become the concerns of "we," to see through many eyes the way Virginia Woolf allows us to do. Which is why, especially if we are white, we vilify our roots because we often see in our own family histories, a palimpsest of larger histories of injustice and oppression. We have a melancholic view of history, in which moments of utopian potential are consistently being snuffed out in the name of "order" and "tradition," the very values, in other words, which Didion spent much of her time in the 1960s eulogizing. She is writing funeral speeches for the passing of milieus whose only apparent meaningfulness is that they are connected to her own biography. Why we should lament the disappearance of the pathetic stagings and affectations of a dusty fake aristocracy is not clear to me, why we should take the survivalist grit of the pioneer generation as ethical models for the present even less so. The Indians are amongst us, protect your own, defend your lifestyle against all costs. These are the imperatives of the Right, old and new, Goldwater and Bush. Circle the wagons against the strange and the new. I admire Didion for the razorblade incisiveness of her critique but her unwillingness to open her subjectivity up to the world makes it difficult to think of her as an ally.
Profile Image for J.L.   Sutton.
666 reviews928 followers
May 13, 2020
"I went to San Francisco because I had not been able to work in some months, had been paralyzed by the conviction that writing was an irrelevant act, that the world as I had understood it no longer existed. If I was to work again at all, it would be necessary for me to come to terms with disorder."

On Joan Didion's Slouching Towards Bethlehem | Book Marks

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is Joan Didion's seminal essay collection detailing life in Northern California, most notably the 1960s counter culture. The title essay contrasts Didion's impressions of San Francisco hippie culture with its most idealized utopian representations. The "Slouching Towards Bethlehem" title comes from W.B. Yeats' poem "The Second Coming." Yeat's famous line from that poem, "The center cannot hold" works brilliantly in this essay and (in my mind at least) echoes through the rest of the collection. Through Didion's words, we feel transported to this time and place, but it was already a transitory place when Didion was writing about it, and you feel that it is already fading into story: “The stories are endless, infinitely familiar, traded by the faithful like baseball cards, fondled until they fray around the edges and blur into the apocryphal.”

Attending UC Berkeley and living in a student co-op (Barrington Hall) that was called "the last bastion of 60s counter culture," I felt something like nostalgia at the feel and the texture of these stories, and the sometimes idealized but deeply imperfect past Didion describes. “Nothing was irrevocable; everything was within reach... I could make promises to myself and to other people and there would be all the time in the world to keep them. I could stay up all night and make mistakes, and none of it would count.” 4.5 stars
Profile Image for Steven  Godin.
2,495 reviews2,383 followers
January 16, 2021

I remember being really impressed with Didion's novel 'Play It as It Lays' a couple of years back, and reading her nonfiction for the first time I was equally; if not more so, impressed with this seminal collection of essays, of which I didn't know that quite a lot of them had previously been published as magazine articles. Didion is certainly a powerful stylist, as she looks on like a surveyor at the shifting scene of American life in the Golden State during a time of social upheaval in the second half of the 60s, and there is a mesmeric quality to these kind of journalistic style pieces that really makes you feel like what she is writing about is of vast importance. There is a sense of language here that is reminiscent of a Hemingway for example, and the closely observed nature of the essays have a strong, short, sharp rhythm to them, making for un-complex, relatively easy reading. Through a world of acid, stoned dropouts, crazed cultists, desert motels, lost souls, and Hollywood, we move from a strange murder trial that shocked the community of an upwardly middle-class town near San Bernardino, to John Wayne, to the hippies of San Francisco who wandered both the country and their tripping minds in search of meaning and purpose, to Las Vegas marriages and the abandoned sight that is Alcatraz, amongst other things. Didion describes the distinct people she encountered, who all seemed to share the hushed bleakness of existing on the outskirts of a happy dream that never materialized. Really enjoyed reading her so far, and hope that continues next time. I'd say this would be a good place to start if one has thought about reading her but hasn't yet done so. For me, a great book all round, but if I had to get picky, then of the twenty essays my favourite five would be - 'Where the Kissing never Stops', '7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38', 'Slouching Towards Bethlehem', 'I Can't Get That Monster Out Of My Mind' and 'Notes from a Native Daughter'
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
4,010 reviews623 followers
December 27, 2021
Audiobook….(6 hours and 53 minutes long)….
…..read by Diane Keaton (‘outstanding’ as the voice narrator)
“Slouching Towards Bethlehem” was first published in 1968.

It was very engaging listening to Diane Keaton read sentences …with her wonderful enunciation choices……
yet reading these essays and articles would allow more time to pause-linger-and digest Joan Didion’s prose deeper…..(I’m sure of it)…
still laidback from a recent Hawaiian vacation…
…soaking in our warm pool while rain ‘poured’ heavily…
Diane Keaton’s voice came through our outside Bluetooth speaker.
It had its own type ‘lingering’ pleasures in itself.

I grew up in this era — which Joan Didion writes about.
I lived here. Still live here. I am quite familiar with the counterculture during the 60’s in the SFBay area — including Monterey and Carmel —Palo Alto - Kepler’s book store in Menlo Park, Stanford- the music jazz festivals - Bob Dylan- the folk ways - the peace movement….etc.


As a confused-late-bloomer-aware-teenager myself by the end of the 60’s….from being a gymnast pom-pom wholesome innocent ….
…..who remembers Peter-Pan collars - Kelly green with pink clothes …. matching shoes with handbags…..
I can still remember my own ‘shock’ ‘sightseeing’ and smelling the Haight Ashbury district back in the 60’s [it’s high-end chic today]….but in the 60’s, most parents didn’t want their kid anywhere near the hippie drug scene….(my mom gave me the piercing-killer looks and lecture— STAY FAR AWAY from Haight Ashbury > and DON’T have sex until marriage)….
We knew several ‘nice Jewish kids’ in our community who over-dosed on LSD. I was too afraid - PETRIFIED actually to take drugs….and I didn’t know how to be a flower child. (Admired the artistic talents though from those who made it look natural).
My fashion was too basic (clean cut boring)….
I failed from MOM’S - sex-lecture.
By age 21, enough was enough! I thoroughly enjoyed my first summer obsessively having sex several times a day — had to make up for lost years….
My first words after my first experience —
“That’s it!!!!!….what’s the BIG DEAL?”
Richard said….”hm….not the response he hoped to hear”….but then promised— “it would get better”. It did >> that summer….in Yosemite under waterfalls - etc.
But about the forbidden - anti Haight Ashbury in the 1960’s for ‘good girls’
…..years later, our older daughter lived in the colorful neighborhood—a half block up from Haight Ashbury ….until she moved to Los Angeles.
It gave me a subtle historical pleasure.…..

….knowing plenty about the 60’s era….
I felt the ‘audiobook format’ worked great for me….and that Diane Keaton was an added treat to listen to. Paul loved it too — chuckling often.
Paul joined me first in the pool….(that Diane Keaton pulled him in.
…..later at our kitchen table while we were making pottery planters from ‘disenfranchised’ tile squares….we kept listening to Diane do her thing —- READ WONDERFULLY….
It’s been an ‘art-project-couple-of-days’ here at home - mixed with rain-warm-water-soaking…..

THESE ESSAYS INSPIRED all kinds of conversations - of …..old memories!!!

Listening to this book with Paul was DEFINITELY ADDED FUN (“The Good Old Days”, he said)…..
Ha….the guy who ‘built’ and was living in a Tree House in Santa Cruz when I first met him …..
When I saw Paul’s gorgeous TREEHOUSE artwork and the stained glass windows ….I thought….”yep….a productive hippie”…..[worked for me]….
Paul went through Jewish conversion at age 9….when his mother married an Orthodox Jew (a couple years after the death of his dad)….His adorable Bar Mitzvah photos are in a photo book in our house.

The title essay, ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’, examined how society was failing…..[hippies - drugs - anti-establishment]….
Other essays include Joan Baez, John Wayne, influences from Howard Hughes…… etc.
Didion wrote about families, lifestyles, marriages in Los Vegas, misplaced children, morality, home, commune’s, sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, insightful observations about Southern California, and New York City……etc.

Joan Didion had a reputation as one of the greatest writers in the literary world….”master observer”…..
And perhaps it was her gifts of perception, observation, and personal reflections about herself (autobiographical essays), along with her literary writing skills….that made her one of America’s premier writer.

I read “The Year of Magical Thinking” and “Blue Nights” yeas ago,(I still own the physical books)….and maybe I should them again — because I don’t remember appreciating her work — not substantially….
In fact …..if my memory is correct - there were aspects of her writing that didn’t sit enthusiastically jolly with me…..
Yet….I DID enjoy these essays….(a non-acid-enjoyable joint-listening trip)…..
So…did Joan Didion change? — [I don’t think so] — but I think I ‘have’.
I’m interested in reading more of her books now -
MUCH MORE than I was years ago!!!

Yep…..”Slouching Towards Bethlehem” has inspired me ‘towards’ …..reading several other of her books (both more essays and her novels).

NEVER a hippie chick: I was too ALL AMERICAN (but I did borrow my friends white go-go boots a few times)….
By the end of these essays…..I was a NEW JOAN DIDION fan……

I absolutely cherished these precious essays…

And last:
May Joan Didion Rest In Peace!

Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,118 followers
September 1, 2017
This is Joan's first essay collection, and the focus is largely on California, in the 1960s, with a few exceptions. I love her ability to write about people and to connect them to specific places. It feels like a time capsule about a place that doesn't exist the same way anymore, at least not completely. Even the Santa Ana winds may have changed.

Profile Image for Ulysse.
291 reviews120 followers
July 4, 2023

It is a sunny spring afternoon and Spud, Dwayne, Sue Ellen, Bob and me are sitting in Golden Gate Park getting turned on. Hippies everywhere, as far as the eye can see, all joining hands in one big community of love. From afar can be heard the Dead playing one of their endless songs before a group of gyrating girls who can’t be a day over fourteen.

“Hey Dwayne,” Bob says, “don’t bogart that joint, help a brother in need, will ya?”

“Sorry man,” Dwayne says, “I was thinking about a piece in the Saturday Evening Post. Creep Forward, Jerusalem. Any of you cats read it?"

"Yeh I read that," says Bob, "Chick seems to think because she hung out with some junkies on Haight she’s an authority on the drug situation there.”

“What drug situation?” Sue Ellen says, bloodshot eyes sticking out of her head like two radishes in an overgrown garden patch.

“Five-year-olds on acid, man.”

Dwayne laughs and says, “Oh that ain’t nothing, I fed my pet turtle STP once. Critter thought it was God Almighty or something, man, I kid you not.”

“Get outta here, you never fed any turtle any drugs, not if I’m the president of the United States of America,” Spud says.

“I swear to you I did. That turtle started bobbing its little head to the tune of a mystery band and sounds came out of its throat, man, all tortured, like it was doing an impression of James Brown.”

“Ha ha, far out man!”

"Wait till you hear what happened next. Dig this, so it flips over onto its shell and starts doing this spinning trick, very slow first, then faster and faster like a reverse top, and it gets to spinning so fast it lifts a whole foot off the ground, yogi style, and hangs there a full minute. Then suddenly a voice comes booming out of it like the voice of Jehovah: 'Dwaaaaaaayne,' it says, 'I am your faaaaaather. Everything, Dwaaaaaaaayne, every word you’ve ever spoken, every thought you’ve ever had, every vibe you’ve ever felt, every kiss you’ve ever kissed, every love you’ve ever loved, every chord you’ve ever played, every girl you’ve ever laid, everything, Dwaaaaaaaaayne, was born in the womb of my gullet. My gullet is the origin of what you are, Dwaaaaaaaayne. Without my gullet, you’d be a bullet without a gun, a son without a father, water without rain, pain without dying, a lion without…'"

“Your pet turtle is starting to sound like Allen Ginsberg, man,” Bob says. “Here gimme that, you’re bogarting again. Where was I anyway? Oh yeh, I saw that Didion chick down on the Tenderloin the other day. Had a shifty look in her eye. Jotting things down in a tiny notebook, wearing a long black trench coat. Got bad vibes from her, man. Thought she was a narc—or worse, a nun. Turns out she was just some journalist taking notes for an article she wuz writing about our so-called lost generation. Wonder what BS she’ll come up with next. She don’t know shit from Shinola about us and I reckon she’s a hundred years old too. Says can’t any of us speak proper English, but let me tell you something: Dwayne’s pet turtle, high or sober, could write a better English than what I seen in Crawling into Soddom or whatever that piece of crap I read was called.”

At this Bob inhales deeply and gazes off into the distance, to where the Golden Gate Bridge, colossus-like in red steel girders, bestrides the magnificence of yet another setting sun.
Profile Image for Glenn Sumi.
404 reviews1,588 followers
November 3, 2018
I read this essay collection – Joan Didion’s first – earlier this year, but of course I had been hearing about it for decades. It and other Didion books like The White Album are famous in a way that few such collections are. And you can easily see why. The best of these pieces open up the possibilities of the essay form, and they show off an enquiring, questing, rigorous mind.

I’ll never forget the book’s opening essay, “Some Dreamers Of The Golden Dream,” which on the surface seems like an account of a real-life case of adultery and murder in San Bernardino County. Didion pays attention to scenes you wouldn’t get in an ordinary true crime account: the era, the place, the noir movies everyone must have watched. There’s one remarkable passage where she walks you – or, more likely, drives you – through a neighbourhood, listing all the store names and slogans, and the details accrue and tell you as much about the milieu and atmosphere in which the crime will take place as any CSI report.

Other memorable essays include an affectionate, nostalgic profile of an aging John Wayne; a piece on Carmel, CA neighbours protesting a school for nonviolence run by folk icon Joan Baez (oh how Didion quietly captures her sanctimoniousness); and the bold title essay, set in the counterculture scene in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood which, in a couple dozen pages, got me to understand more about the movement than a dozen movies and novels.

And there’s the lovely, elegiac (and often quoted) essay, “Goodbye To All That,” about Didion’s few years living in Manhattan as a young woman before she moved to California. It will make you think about your own dreams, aspirations and life-changing decisions.

Not all the essays are as remarkable as these. Some feel perfunctory or overly oblique. But what a voice. What a prose stylist. And, if the comments from my female journalist/writer friends are any indication, what a role model.

“We tell each other stories,” to quote Didion, “in order to live.” Although these stories are over 50 years old, they still tell us so much about what it’s like to be alive.
Profile Image for David.
163 reviews530 followers
September 9, 2013
Joan Didion is an insightful and skeptical thinker, an astute ironist, and a beautiful prose stylist: Slouching Towards Bethlehem exemplifies her craft. While all of her essays are exemplary in form, some fall by the wayside of memory, and even only a week removed from my first foray in Didion, only a few remain with me with any moving power. Slouching Towards Bethlehem skirts the two worlds of my known (intimacy) and my unknown (distance): what it means to be a twentysomething, a skeptic, a thinker, an observational outsider-insider, a reader, and the world of the 1960s: the vestigial mirage of the American dream, and the fairy-dust optimism particular to California (and to drug-addicts).

I had held off reading Didion for a while, because more than I knew about her writing, I knew about her celebrity. The Joan Didion of 2013: the sheepish-looking neuresthenic of the upper-upper crust, with silver tableware and imported china, damask upholstery on ormulu footed furniture, does not invite sympathy nor empathy. She has become her own horror, a self-damaging neuralgia grown completely inward into herself. But the Didion of Slouching Towards Bethlehem (and, I hope, The White Album which I plan to read sometime soon) is a different sort of woman: one which balances the Janus faces of reflection: inward as well as outward. Much of this collection is a reflection on external, cultural phenomena: a murder case in Southern California, the alluring celebrity of John Wayne, the apotheosis of marriage in Las Vegas, the drugs and counterculture of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury, and she develops a personal narrative about it: how she is affected by these phenomena, and what it meant to be exposed to them. Her essays have a literary flair, which court Fitzgerald-esque lyricism and Hemingway-an precision, exactness: her essays are thoroughly American, of an American rhythm and tempo, with a focus on the corroding core of the "American dream."

A particularly resonant essay, "Goodbye to All That" describes Didion's eight-year sojourn in New York City, when she was twenty up through twenty-eight.
one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened before.
As a twenty-three year old (recently initiated, adieu, twenty-two) I understand the conviction that what one feels, one is the first to feel, perhaps the only one ever to feel: all emotions feel unique, curried with the salt of freedom. If young childhood is the realm of dominant solipsism, young adult hood is the era of narcissism, egoism. It is necessary, I think, to go through this deeply narcissistic phase: we must, at sometime, be the true heroes of our life stories: alone and valiant like Odysseus. At twenty-something, the consequences of our actions are minor, we are yet-formed, yet-completed, we are free to fall and free to rise, but still free to be forgiven. In this period of our lives we must design and build a genuine ego, to replace the mask of entitlement and privilege of youth. Everything which is new is new only by our point of reference: ourselves, and impossible to conceive the true universality of it in the present. Literature, history, makes us feel often that we are not alone, that what we are feeling is rooted in something which is universal, eternal: but we still believe that we have a unique strain, an undiscovered permutation of the human condition.

Didion's essays On Self-Respect, On Morality, On Keeping a Notebook reveal the narcissistic compulsions of young adulthood: an age wherein we pen (figuratively and sometimes literally for the diary-inclined) the narrative of out life-stories, and also develop the character which we will assume. What draws people to literature, to story-telling, to TV and movies, is our desperate need for linearity in life. We understand the beginning-middle-end mentality, the rhythm of narratives is very comforting to us. We are a profoundly moralizing species, and narratives help us find meaning, even if it is artificial, created, posed: it comforts us to think that every action has an equal and opposite re-action, we are comforted by the abstract concept of justice, and the practice of it when it is in our favor. Didion acknowledges this compulsion:
I know something about dread myself, and appreciate the elaborate systems with which some people fill the void, appreciate all the opiates of the people, whether they are as accessible as alcohol and heroin and promiscuity or as hard to come by as faith in God or History.
As humans, we need some escape, or if not escape overtly, some structure which guards us from the brutal chaos of reality. We conceive of ourselves heroes, we are heroically justified, our self-respect buds, we become a solitary wanderer, discoverer, thinker, inventor: we measure ourselves by our potential, not necessarily by our accomplishments.
To have that sense of one's intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference.
Self-respect, according to Didion, is a "moral nerve" - those with self-respect "have the courage of their mistakes. They know the price of things." It is in the golden era of our lives, our twenties, when we are forced to pay for things: our material needs with money, and our mistakes with our self-respect. There is not currency so valuable as self-respect, and no wealth which is harder to regain when it has been lost.

I was moved, was empathetic, to what Didion has to say about her life, particularly her more personal essays. Her descent into neurotic inwardness is perhaps the extreme condition of her reflexive mastery in her earlier essays and works: for it is this aspect which shines. She is coolly self-aware at the age of thirty-two, where she has become a prisoner of her own privilege and self-communion in her later years.
I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.
Profile Image for Diane.
1,081 reviews2,720 followers
March 12, 2008
Joan Didion, where have you been all my life? My husband has been trying to get me to read her books for years, and I see now how blindly stupid I've been in not reading her sooner.

Most of the essays in "Slouching Towards Bethlethem" are wondrous; there were only a few that didn't amaze me. (The piece on the Haight-Ashbury district, for example, dragged on way too long and wasn't as interesting as it would have been when it first appeared in 1967. Similarly, the 1964 piece on Hollywood was so enmeshed in the present that it doesn't seem relevant some 40 years later.)

But the rest of the book awed me. My favorite essays were "John Wayne: A Love Song," "On Self-Respect," "On Keeping a Notebook," "On Going Home" and "Goodbye to All That."

Joan Didion's writing moved me the most when she got personal. The story of celebrating her daughter's first birthday was bittersweet, knowing that in real life, Didion's only daughter died young from septic shock. And yet, I treasured that moment of Joan gazing at her baby in her crib, hoping for the best for her.

I can't finish this review unless I mention the author's preface, which I confess I've read and reread several times to fully appreciate it. One night I read a paragraph of it to my husband, who said, "That's my favorite paragraph of hers." Here is a section of it:

"I am bad at interviewing people. I avoid situations in which I have to talk to anyone's press agent... I do not like to make telephone calls, and would not like to count the mornings I have sat on some Best Western motel bed somewhere and tried to force myself to put through a call to the assistant district attorney. My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so tempermentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out."

I could pull a great quote from every one of the essays in this book, but that would ruin the fun of you discovering it for yourself.

Profile Image for Ahmad Sharabiani.
9,564 reviews45 followers
January 26, 2020
Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays, Joan Didion

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a 1968 collection of essays by Joan Didion that mainly describes her experiences in California during the 1960's.

One critic describes the essay as "a devastating depiction of the aimless lives of the disaffected and incoherent young," with Didion positioned as "a cool observer but not a hardhearted one." Another scholar writes that the essay’s form mirrors its content; the fragmented structure resonates with the essay's theme of societal fragmentation. In a 2011 interview, Didion discussed her technique of centering herself and her perspective in her non-fiction works like "Slouching Towards Bethlehem": “I thought it was important always for the reader for me to place myself in the piece so that the reader knew where I was, the reader knew who was talking...At the time I started doing these pieces it was not considered a good thing for writers to put themselves front and center, but I had this strong feeling you had to place yourself there and tell the reader who that was at the other end of the voice.”

Profile Image for Matt.
1,035 reviews666 followers
January 10, 2012

I loved the sheer beauty and rigor and power of the sentences. I'd never read anything by her before but I'd heard great things. I picked this up for 50 cents on a lark and found it to be ideal subway reading.

I don't say this lightly, mind- I spend a lot of time reading on subway ( ars is pretty longa and vita is DEFINITELY brevis ) and having a book that meshes well with the overal mise en scene is key. It might be that Didion seems to be uniquely fascinated with urban landscapes and the ephemera of modern people, or that she wrote many of these pieces for magazines and thus erred always on the side of accessibility and flow, or just that she's a damn fine writer. Does it matter?

"Goodbye To All That" was as luminous and poetic and tough-minded and vivid as its reputation insisted. I haven't had the depth of experience with NYC that she obviously does but I flatter myself to think that I could really relate to what she was writing. I could see myself in the prose as in a particularly well done movie; the silent second lead, as it were. Pretty much every time she was either reminiscing or leaving some place or reminiscing about leaving some place her prose really started to hit these amazing, subtle, breathy and breathtaking cadences.

The in-person profile of John Wayne was also interesting and somehow economically true-to-life. She writes that when she was young she saw a movie where Wayne states that he'll take the girl he fancies to the place where the water-lilies grow- she has always dreamed, albeit ruefully, that someone would take her there someday. It's a sweet, subtle, sneakily personal moment which caught my breath when I read it.

There's something to the way she can quietly inject herself into the tone and flow of what she's writing about so that the seam between herself and the world, objective/subjective voice becomes miniscule, not to say meaningless. I love this kind of writing- magazine profiles are always a special treat- and I guess Didion deserves much of the credit for pioneering it alongside the more borborygmous practitioners of the New Journalism, your Mailers, Thompsons and so on. She makes it severe, language-wise, rationing out her lyricism to distill it for maximum impact. The reader learns pretty quickly not to mess with their author's judgments.

And this is my gripe, with this book at least (the only non-fiction of hers I've read): she seems to only pick up the pieces of the most annoyingly shoddy, vapid and delusional characters. Californians of all stripes come out for the freak show on Didion's home turf: be they drippy hippies, Joan Baez's radical chic socialist summer camp, dogmatic and humorless commies selling nickel newspapers by the beach, or murderous adulterous couples who make big, ill-alibi'd splashes in their adenoidal misadventures- possibly the only great moments in their whole boring lives.

Everybody here seems a caricature. It might be true to life- I wouldn't and couldn't know, having never set foot in Cali- but it seems to be very much a shit on a shoe situation, w/r/t Didion's brilliantly lucid all-seeing-eye. It might be me, but I couldn't shake the feeling that these characters and scenarios are interesting to her because they are so fucked-up, drained, and wasted. The cumulative effect is one of aggregated enervation leading to slight but distinct exasperation.

I mean, pointing out the hollowness of the 60's counterculture is all well and good, but what with the portentious, doomy title and the near-callous, scornfully raised eyebrow of disapproval I start to take Didion's judgments with ever-increasing grains of salt. You can either shake your fist in the street or you can get some kicks out of laughing your ass off, and wouldn't it be more interesting, all Modern Urban Malaise considered, to crack a joke once in a while?

Plenty of artists and writers satirized the same social and moral landscape with seemingly similar values in mind (one might think of West, Wilder, Pynchon and Zappa, just to name a few, not to mention HST, a near-peer whose zest for the absurd only partially redeems the fact that he can't write a paragraph, or even a sentence, on Didion's level) but they did in their own ways with a bit more bravura, wit, and sympathetic understanding.

Didion doesn't need to like these people- I mean, really, who could?- but she could easily have disliked the people she writes about with less of a scowl and overblown intimations of apocalypse. Didion can write masterfully- I wonder if she can laugh half so well.

There's an interesting article I read awhile back in The Atlantic magazine that delves into Didion's role as a literary and cultural presence from a totally different and interesting perspective which might be worth reading, if you're reading this:


For the record, I don't think Didion is being narcissitic or maudlin, I really got the sense that her social anxieties were real (rather than the hipster confections we see every friggin day on the tv or eavesdropping confabs over vegan coffee beans under paintings of sad koalas) and that most importantly they made her a better writer. Mirror to nature, fly on the wall.

Man, do I ever feel that, btw. Reading her took me back to undergrad (or last week) when I spent many interminable evenings sociologically trying to interest myself in the company I kept, bored out of my sockets, silently sitting cross-legged and watching everything everybody did, ostensibly storing it up for future reference but coming away feeling bored, despondent, and a little lost. Where have all the good times gone? As she herself remarks, in one of her many brilliantly wise, mordant aphorisms, "writers are always selling somebody out."

It's not a gender thing, either. I could give a hoot in hell for the overblown HST theatrics and the exaggerated clowning for addled insights which were never truly there where it counts, where it has always counted, IN THE PROSE. I had more friends than I cared to who thought he was the second coming of Christ and that his books qualified as real bona-fide literature. Some do, surely, but the reach exceeds the grasp for decades at a time. HST yearned with all his little heart to write like Fitzgerald and suffered the unlucky fate of being more or less the kind of writer who people who don't really cherish literature for its own sake assume to be great writing.

Didion seems the stronger writer by far in terms of (and precisely because of) her openly acknowledged subversive, steel-spined modesty. Her shit detector seems solid, shock-proof and substantial, as grizzled papa's was so rarely. My (major) beef is that, in STB at least, it's constantly blinking red.
Profile Image for Joe Valdez.
499 reviews857 followers
June 5, 2021
The Year of Women--in which I'm devoting 2021 to reading female authors only--continues with Joan Didion and Slouching Toward Bethlehem: Essays. Published in 1968, the book is a compilation of pieces commissioned mostly by the Saturday Evening Post in the 1960s, ranging from exposés on John Wayne or Michael Laski (founder of the Communist Party USA) to essays on herself to the title piece, which documents runaways in Haight-Ashbury in 1967.

"Slouching Toward Bethlehem" is a wonderfully grimy long-read documenting the Flower Power era as it was turning ugly. I abandoned the book at the 70% mark, though. I don't feel that I was doing Didion's literary journalism any favors by binging one article after another. I wish I could've read these pieces as they were published in the 1960s, one per month. Taken together, I didn't feel they added up to much, except that every thinking person in every decade feels they're living in the end of times.

Joan Didion was born in 1934 in Sacramento, California. Her father was an Army Air Corps officer and the family relocated often. Didion discovered reading at a young age and began writing at the age of five. In 1956, she received a BA in English from the University of California, Berkeley. Her senior year, Didion won 1st place in an essay contest sponsored by Vogue and was awarded a job as a research assistant, working her way up to associate feature editor.

She relocated to California in 1964 after marrying fellow writer John Gregory Dunne, with whom Didion wrote assignments for magazines like The Saturday Evening Post to pay the bills. Essays, novels, non-fiction, memoirs and screenplays (Dunne & Didion adapted the Barbra Streisand-Kris Kristofferson version of A Star is Born) would follow. Since her husband's death in 2003, Didion maintains residency in both Los Angeles and New York City.

Previous reviews in the Year of Women:

-- Come Closer, Sara Gran
-- Veronica, Mary Gaitskill
-- Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys, Viv Albertine
-- Pizza Girl, Jean Kyoung Frazier
-- My Year of Rest and Relaxation, Ottessa Moshfegh
-- Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Fannie Flagg
-- The Memoirs of Cleopatra, Margaret George
-- Miss Pinkerton, Mary Roberts Rinehart
-- Beast in View, Margaret Millar
-- Lying In Wait, Liz Nugent
-- And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie
-- Desperate Characters, Paula Fox
-- You, Caroline Kepnes
-- Deep Water, Patricia Highsmith
-- Don't Look Now and Other Stories, Daphne du Maurier
-- You May See a Stranger: Stories, Paula Whyman
-- The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, Deesha Philyaw
-- White Teeth, Zadie Smith
-- Eva Luna, Isabel Allende
Profile Image for Lee.
352 reviews8 followers
December 24, 2021
Who was I when I first read this and liked it yet managed to forget almost everything about it? (An apt consideration here, as anyone who's read this will know.)

'AS IT HAPPENS I am in Death Valley, in a room at the Enterprise Motel and Trailer Park, and it is July, and it is hot. In fact it is 119F. I cannot seem to make the air conditioner work, but there is a small refrigerator, and I can wrap ice cubes in a towel and hold them against the small of my back. With the help of the ice cubes I have been trying to think, because The American Scholar asked me to, in some abstract way about “morality,” a word I distrust more every day, but my mind veers inflexibly toward the particular.

Here are some particulars. At midnight last night, on the road in from Las Vegas to Death Valley Junction, a car hit a shoulder and turned over. The driver, very young and apparently drunk, was killed instantly. His girl was found alive but bleeding internally, deep in shock. I talked this afternoon to the nurse who had driven the girl to the nearest doctor, 185 miles across the floor of the Valley and three ranges of lethal mountain road. The nurse explained that her husband, a talc miner, had stayed on the highway with the boy’s body until the coroner could get over the mountains from Bishop, at dawn today. “You can’t just leave a body on the highway,” she said. “It’s immoral.”

It was one instance in which I did not distrust the word, because she meant something quite specific. She meant that if a body is left alone for even a few minutes on the desert, the coyotes close in and eat the flesh. Whether or not a corpse is torn apart by coyotes may seem only a sentimental consideration, but of course it is more: one of the promises we make to one another is that we will try to retrieve our casualties, try not to abandon our dead to the coyotes. If we have been taught to keep our promises—if, in the simplest terms, our upbringing is good enough—we stay with the body, or have bad dreams.'
Profile Image for Vanessa.
464 reviews300 followers
April 17, 2017
3.5 stars.
The writing exemplifies the sentiments and mood of the counter culture of the 60's, Didion does indeed capture it exceptionally well. Dry and sharply delivered and filled with references and dissections of social issues she is definitely the voice of a generation albeit it comes across a little dated now. I wish I could say I liked this collection as a whole, not all essays resonated with me and left me underwhelmed more often than not, I had high hopes for this so maybe my expectations were set too high. Her more personal accounts left me wanting more so for this reason I will explore more of her work as she clearly has something to say and delivers it extremely well.
Profile Image for Lorna.
721 reviews420 followers
February 4, 2022
Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays was a searing collection of essays by Joan Didion, most previously published in various magazines in 1965, 1966, and 1967, and taking place in California. In the Preface Ms. Didion shares how hard it is for her to interview people and to meet her deadlines. She describes her success as a reporter thus:

"My only advantage as a reporter is that I am so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests. And it always does. That is one last thing to remember: writers are always selling somebody out."

Slouching Towards Bethlehem is divided into three sections, the first being Lifestyles in the Golden Land. One of my favorite essays was the one entitled, John Wayne: A Love Song where Joan Didion related how she fell in love with John Wayne movies at the age of eight when she and her brother watched his films three times a week. Didion was able to interview John Wayne while in Mexico City filming The Sons of Katie Elder, his 165th movie. Another favorite was Where the Kissing Never Stops, an essay about Joan Baez and her school, The Institute for the Study of Nonviolence, in Carmel Valley in 1965. The final essay in this section was Slouching Towards Bethlehem, an essay covering the time she was reporting about the time she spent in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in 1965. Joan Didion shares that while she felt that this was the most imperative piece she was writing, it also left her despondent after it was printed. As a reader, it left me despondent as well.

The second section of the book entitled Personals is about keeping a notebook writing one's thoughts and dreams. A very interesting essay was on self-respect, who has it and who does not, it being the willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life, not only in her experience but in many characters in literature. There was another essay on morality and another on going home again.

The third section being Seven Places of the Mind opening with her feelings and observations and the history of her native Sacramento, a favorite of mine as I lived there only a year but fell in love with the Sacramento valley. One of Didion's quotes:

"In fact that is what it is like to come from a place like Sacramento. If I could make you understand that, I could make you understand California and perhaps something else besides, for Sacramento is California, and California is a place in which a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension; in which the mind is troubled by some buried but ineradicable suspicion that things had better work here, because here, beneath that immense bleached sky, is where we run out of continent."

In the Preface Joan Didion shares how she named this book of essays Slouching Towards Bethlehem because for several years certain lines from the poem by W.B. Yeats were coming to mind:

"Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in the sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"

Profile Image for El.
1,355 reviews502 followers
February 26, 2015
I don't mean to be super fangirl about this collection, because a lot of the essays were fine but didn't blow my socks off. However, the ones that I really liked? I really fucking liked. And I know that a couple of months from now, probably even a few years from now, even with my shitty-shit memory, I will look back at this collection and think happy thoughts because of the essays that made my little Grinch heart explode into brightly flavored fireworks of flowers and sunshine and unicorns.

I don't mean to be dismissive about the essays that I thought were merely fine, but that's probably how it will come across. Let's just lay out here: I don't care that much about California. I know people who live there, one of my brothers used to live there, that's all great, they're good people. But when I think about places I have an active interest in visiting, California isn't high on that list. Even when a lovely person like Joan Didion writes about California, it doesn't make me want to hop on a plane and head there. So those essays didn't do so much for me, much like her other collection, Where I Was From, didn't do so much for me. I blame all of this not on Didion or her writing, but the entire state of California. Because, duh.

That's right, California, I'm throwing shade your way.

There's that one, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, for which this collection is named, that was really powerful. Didion spent time with the hippies of the original Sixties in Haight-Ashbury, and okay. That was a really decent essay. But that was more about Haight-Ashbury and counter-culture than it was about California.

But the other ones that were amazing and did funny things to my heart were the ones that were even more personal, personal to Didion and to who Didion is as a person. Most of the entire second section, Personals, made me nod out of familiarity. I knew exactly what she was talking about. On Keeping a Notebook, an essay every notebook-keeper should read; On Self-Respect; On Morality; On Going Home. And in the final section, Seven Places of the Mind (such a great section title), the final essay, Goodbye to All That hit me in all the feels. ALL THE FEELS, guys.

I want to curl up with this book and re-read all my favorites over and over again. But right now I can't even.

So five glowing stars for the ones I liked the most and I'll just pretend the other ones that felt lackluster in comparison were from that other essay collection of hers that I gave two stars.

Profile Image for Lynne King.
494 reviews676 followers
July 2, 2016
How can one possibly not love Joan Didion be it for her fiction or non-fiction. These twenty essays demonstrate her skills not only as a journalist but also as an incredible author. I must confess the essay on Howard Hughes scintillated me.

As for the title which I found very unusual. I was intrigued to see that W.B. Yeats was Didion's inspiration, as shown in the last two sentences of his poem:

"And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?"

Why did she choose this poem? I kept on thinking about this and so I was intrigued to read that "This book is called Slouching Towards Bethlehem because for several years now certain lines from the Yeats poem which appears two pages back have reverberated in my inner ear as if they were surgically implanted there".

How wonderful to read that.

The rainbow does indeed shine on her!

I applaud her!
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Patrick O'Neil.
Author 10 books145 followers
August 29, 2008
Everyone I know who reads a lot or considers themselves writers has told me to read Joan Didion. I always cringe and go the other way when too many people tell me to do the same thing. I’m not sure where, or when, this resistance to Didion started. But it has somehow manifested itself in my psyche.

During my first semester at Antioch University, Rob Roberge, in one of his brilliant seminars, made a few comical references to her. Not her writing, but of Didion, or more precisely the cult of Didion – much to the disapproval of my fellow students – so furthering the hype that I figured I had to finally discover just what all the brouhaha was about.

Didion can write. Her descriptive narratives that make up the chapters in Slouching Towards Bethlehem prove that she can. Yet it is the “her” in her descriptive narratives that I tend to not want to experience. Maybe I’m just too jaded with preconceived ideas, or I’ve set my expectations too high. Whatever the case, I can appreciate the craft – yet find her attitude/ego too much to wade through.

Funny, but this is probably what people say about my writing. Hmmmmmmm.......
Profile Image for Monica.
622 reviews631 followers
July 24, 2020
Fascinating time capsule of the 60s. I enjoyed the lens on Sacramento.

While I can appreciate the excellent and interesting writing of Didion, perhaps this is one to read in small doses instead of straight through. Some of the rhythms and pacing of the essays began to feel similar even when the subjects were not. In the end, this was good but not as good as I had anticipated. I still recommend it, just read a few essays at a time.

3.5 Stars rounded up

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