One of the most fulfilling aspects of my job is discovering new writers, a joy I know I share with my colleagues in fiction, children’s, YA, and Indie. In these uncertain, chaotic times, however, I also cherish stability, which is why I relish the opportunity to read new work by some of our most reliably great authors. No matter the subject of their next books, these are the authors you know you can count on to entertain, illuminate, edify, and inspire. You know you won’t be disappointed—no small feat in the mercurial world of arts and culture.
It is lofty territory, populated, just in the past few months, by the likes of David Sedaris, Jerald Walker, Claire Messud, Lauren Redniss, Michael Eric Dyson, Adam Kirsch, Harold Bloom, Simon Winchester, and even the late Ram Dass. But over the past half-century, few authors have been as consistently impressive as Joan Didion, whose new book, Let Me Tell You What I Mean (Knopf, Jan. 26), is a “slender, highly satisfying collection” from the renowned memoirist, screenwriter, and novelist. These uncollected pieces represent a large swath of Didion’s career, from 1968 to 2000, and each essay amply demonstrates the author’s deceptively straightforward prose, simultaneously spare, elegant, and incisive.
In the foreword to Didion’s latest, New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als captures the essence of her approach, which crystallized early on in her career: “I think it’s safe to say that Didion, a carver of words in the granite of the specific, might have been less than inspired by the Cold War writing that was popular on both coasts when she was a college student; in any case, it’s hard to imagine her as a Dharma bum. Too much posturing there. What Didion sought was naturalness of expression as controlled by a true understanding of one’s craft, the better to describe the ineffable, the uncanny in the everyday.”
That ability to capture “the uncanny in the everyday” comes across whether she is writing about Gamblers Anonymous, a program that, “like…Alcoholics Anonymous, tends to reinforce the addict’s own rather passive view of his situation”; a visit with Nancy Reagan, who “has an interesting smile, the smile of a good wife, a good mother, a good hostess, the smile of someone who grew up in comfort and went to Smith College and has a father who is a distinguished neurosurgeon”; or her rejection from Stanford, which she and her family took in stride. In her family, she writes, “no parental hopes rode on whether I was admitted to Stanford, or anywhere….Our social situation was static, and the question of ‘right’ schools, so traditionally urgent to the upwardly mobile, did not arise. When my father was told that I had been rejected by Stanford, he shrugged and offered me a drink. I think about that shrug with a great deal of appreciation whenever I hear parents talking about their children’s ‘chances.’” Though written decades ago, that piece offers plenty of object lessons for parents who are currently navigating the rocky landscape of standardized tests, GPAs, and college admissions.
The collection also includes Didion’s introduction to a book of photography by Robert Mapplethorpe and another to director Tony Richardson’s memoir. Both a practical entry point for neophytes and a celebration for longtime fans, Let Me Tell You What I Mean is yet another winner from an essential writer. If you’re hungry for more, don’t hesitate to pick up the compendious anthology We Tell Ourselves Stories To Live, which collects Didion’s first seven volumes of nonfiction.
Eric Liebetrau is the nonfiction and managing editor.