29 October 2014

reading notes: Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Didion, Joan. (2006) [1968]. "Slouching towards Bethelehem." In Didion, Joan, We tell ourselves stories in order to live: Collected nonfiction (1-177). New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

I had wanted to read Didion's Slouching Toward Bethelehem for some time, primarily because of the evocative title. I wasn't entirely sure what the book was about. As it happened, the essays in the book touch on one of the eras in American history about which I am extremely foggy. History classes in high school tend not to cover the 1960s, or only do so in passing. When I got to university, I was required to take a history course, and I selected one on the history of Asia and Africa (up to the point when European colonization began). I chose it because it was a topic I wanted to learn more about and it had no pre-requisites. Much of the history I know is self-taught, from reading. Didion's collection of essays let me fill in some of the blanks about the 1960s, though it is itself a limited picture, being a series of stories told about different people, mostly in the alternative cultures.

I first found Didion's style a bit off-putting. It was rushed, almost choppy, as if she was in a hurry to communicate what she had seen before her memories blurred. She narrates, but attempts to stand aloof: She reports the story but rarely engages with it. Particularly in the title essay, Didion seems withdrawn; her reports of young people who are taking heavy drugs, living on the streets or in communes, are matter-of-fact. It is only at the end of the essay when she sees a kindergartener whose mother regularly dosed her with acid that she stumbles in her dispassionate questions and the reader feels her absolute shock.

It was in the second part of the book that I discovered a genuine interest in what Didion was writing. The first section, "Lifestyles in the Golden Land" includes the title essay, "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," as well as several others, all about California. The second is titled "Personals;" the pace slows, and the author becomes apparent to the reader. This is where I connected with the narrative, with Didion's stories and ideas. Perhaps it is a generational matter, a matter of preference for different writing styles, and for slightly different ways of telling stories. A few of her shorter essays resonated with me, and I have now added to my knowledge, so it was definitely worth the read.


"And sometimes even the maker has difficulty with the meaning" ("On Keeping a Notebook," p. 104).

"To have that sense of one's intrinsic self-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" ("On Self-Respect," p. 112).

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