Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

    Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion was one of those novels I read in a contemporary literature class back in 1973 or 1974.  I've always thought fondly of it though I sure couldn't tell you the plot or theme - other than fragmentation and alienation in Los Angeles in the 1970's.  I've had Ms. Didion's book Slouching Towards Bethlehem on my "to read" list for years and this week I finally got to it.  It did not disappoint.

    This book is a collection of essays focused on America in the 1960's and, within that, primarily on California at that time.  She tackles lots of topics including John Wayne, Howard Hughes, what it was like to grow up a girl in California, and investigating Haight-Ashbury at its height as the counter-cultural capital of the world circa 1968.

    Ms Didion's words just knock my socks off.  The opening essay is entitled "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream".  It clearly demonstrates how "the future always looks good in the golden land because no one remembers the past.  [California] 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 came from somewhere else, for all those who drifted away from the cold and the past and the old ways."  The essay focuses on "the conventional clandestine affair in a place like San Bernardino, a place where little is bright or graceful, where it is routine to misplace the future and easy to start looking for it in bed."

   Listen to that:   ".... routine to misplace the future and easy to start looking for it in bed."  Does that not send chills along your spine?

   Another essay that I found particularl poignant and insightful is entitled "On Keeping A Notebook".  In it, Ms Didion reflects on why she keeps a notebook anyway:  "Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss."  Agree or disagree, you must admit the words are compelling.

    Later in the same  essay, Didion is remembering a particular line that she wrote in her notebook and how that line impacted her:  "It all comes back.  Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one's self back in that  kind of mood, but I do see it;  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."

    There are so many thoughtful words in this collection of essays.  It's not the kind of book you'll want to read in a breezy way.  You'll want to take your time.  You'll want to put those post it notes all over the place.  You will want to read parts aloud, simply because they sound so cool, they evoke such images.  At least I did.


  1. Thank you so much, for sharing Ms. Didion's book with us. I love her work, and look forward to reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem. Compelling language indeed--your excerpts are nicely selected, and deeply insightful. I get so inspired by good writing. Thanks, Gracie, for taking the time to introduce us to this book.

    1. You're welcome - you will have my copy in your hands in another week or so!

  2. ".... routine to misplace the future and easy to start looking for it in bed."
    and then all we can hope for is senility to take over so we forget how good it used to be...
    Such is life...

  3. RIP Gore Vidal...
    The last true liberal...

  4. Does Didion tackle the birth of Reaganomics in California in 1966?
    We've had 16 more years of it than the rest of the country folks...
    Alabama here we come!