The Notebooks of Joan Didion

I just recently finished reading Joan Didion’s short new book, South and West. What’s interesting about this book is that it’s not really new at all; rather, it’s a series of selections from Didion’s personal notebook, written in 1970 while she was traveling through the American South with her husband, researching a piece that she didn’t end up writing (there’s also a short section, also from her notebook, about Didion’s thoughts on California during the 1976 Patty Hearst trial).

While the contents of the book have some excellent insights (most strikingly that the South has changed little in the last 40 years), what really struck me were the style and quality of Didion’s notes. Didion takes notes in such a way that many of them are more fully formed, more beautiful, than a lot of writers’ prose. In fact, much of what Didion observes in her notebooks is so detailed that, considering most of it was written at the end of the day or even days later, it simply can’t be accurate.

This isn’t a problem, though. It’s just Didion staying true to what she writes in her famous essay “On Keeping a Notebook“:

So the point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking. That would be a different impulse entirely, an instinct for reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess. At no point have I ever been able successfully to keep a diary; my approach to daily life ranges from the grossly negligent to the merely absent, and on those few occasions when I have tried dutifully to record a day’s events, boredom has so overcome me that the results are mysterious at best. What is this business about “shopping, typing piece, dinner with E, depressed”? Shopping for what? Typing what piece? Who is E? Was this “E” depressed, or was I depressed? Who cares?

In fact I have abandoned altogether that kind of pointless entry; instead I tell what some would call lies. “That’s simply not true,” the members of my family frequently tell me when they come up against my memory of a shared event. “The party was not for you, the spider was not a black widow, it wasn’t that way at all.” Very likely they are right, for not only have I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.

If, like me, you love peeking into the journals and notebooks of some of our best writers, then I highly recommend South and West.