Joan Didion Creates a Handwritten List of the 19 Books That Changed Her Life

If you’ve read much Joan Did­ion, you’ve almost sure­ly come across an obser­va­tion or phrase that has changed the way you look at Cal­i­for­nia, the media, or the cul­ture of the late 20th cen­tu­ry — or indeed, changed your life. But if life-chang­ing writ­ers have all had their own lives changed by the writ­ers before them, which writ­ers made Joan Did­ion the Joan Did­ion whose writ­ing still exerts an influ­ence today? Con­ve­nient­ly enough, the author of Play It as It LaysSlouch­ing Towards Beth­le­hem, and The White Album once drew up a list of the books that changed her life, and it sur­faced on Insta­gram a few years ago:

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

In 1978, when Did­ion had already become a new-jour­nal­ism icon, The Paris Review’s Lin­da Kuehl asked her whether any writer influ­enced her more than oth­ers. “I always say Hem­ing­way,” she replied, “because he taught me how sen­tences worked. When I was fif­teen or six­teen I would type out his sto­ries to learn how the sen­tences worked. I taught myself to type at the same time.” Teach­ing A Farewell to Arms, her num­ber-one most influ­en­tial book, she “fell right back into those sen­tences. I mean they’re per­fect sen­tences. Very direct sen­tences, smooth rivers, clear water over gran­ite, no sink­holes.”

Did­ion’s list also includes oth­er mas­ters of the sen­tence, albeit most of them pos­sessed of sen­si­bil­i­ties quite dis­tinct from Hem­ing­way’s. Hen­ry James, for instance: “He wrote per­fect sen­tences, too, but very indi­rect, very com­pli­cat­ed. Sen­tences with sink­holes. You could drown in them.” Con­sid­er them along­side the oth­er writ­ers among her favored nine­teen, from nov­el­ists like Emi­ly Bron­të and Joyce Car­ol Oates to poets like Wal­lace Stevens and W.H. Auden to fig­ures with one foot in lit­er­a­ture and the oth­er in jour­nal­ism like George Orwell and Nor­man Mail­er, and you’ve got a mix that no two aspir­ing writ­ers could read and come out sound­ing exact­ly alike. No sur­prise that such a set of influ­ences would pro­duce a writer like Did­ion, so often imi­tat­ed but, in her niche, nev­er equaled.

via Brain­Pick­ings

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Read 12 Mas­ter­ful Essays by Joan Did­ion for Free Online, Span­ning Her Career From 1965 to 2013

Joan Did­ion Reads From New Mem­oir, Blue Nights, in Short Film Direct­ed by Grif­fin Dunne

New Doc­u­men­tary Joan Did­ion: The Cen­ter Will Not Hold Now Stream­ing on Net­flix

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

by | Permalink | Comments (2) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (2)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.