≡ Menu

Review: Slouching Towards Bethlehem

I wrote a post about how inspiring I found Joan Didion while I was in the middle of reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem last month, but have been putting off a review because I’m not sure what else to say.  I loved the book when I finished it, started to dislike it while we discussed it in class, but now have come back to loving it again.

Didion is a strange author to read.  Her writing style is very distanced, and she is almost painfully self-aware of her own motivations and biases.  When you first read, this self-awareness is charming and disarming.  Once I was disarmed, I stopped thinking about how Didion was manipulating the story because I started to trust her.  And ultimately, I think that’s the biggest mistake Didion’s readers and Didion’s subjects can make because as soon as you let your guard down Didion strikes.

As a reader, she strikes through the way she interjects herself in the story.  You stop paying attention to what she’s doing as a journalist to get these stories and allow yourself to get swept up in her message.  You stop thinking as critically about what you’re reading and just sort of go along with it because the prose is elegant and Didion is a great storyteller.

I think Didion also uses these personality features to disarm her subjects, allowing them to open up to her without feeling threatened.  It’s a mistake for her subjects to let their guard down because, as Didion writes in her own introduction, “writers are always selling somebody out.”  Once a subject opens up to her, Didion has no problem making them look foolish or selfish or like a bad person in order to further her story.  It’s really strange to spend time reflecting on the book because it takes time to really understand what Didion is doing.

I did really love this book.  It’s an incredible look at 1960s counter-culture, and a much more accessible piece of New Journalism than books by Hunter Thompson or Tom Wolfe.  With Didion, you don’t get bogged down by crazy writing or goofy prose, you just get swept along for a good story.  The trick is staying aware enough to see what she is doing because that, for me, is the coolest part.

This post is part of National Blog Posting Month for the month of November. You can find out more about NaBloPoMo here and view my NaBloPoMo profile page here. Thanks for reading!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • bermudaonion November 18, 2008, 10:57 am

    This book sounds pretty thought provoking.

  • Joanne November 18, 2008, 3:04 pm

    This sounds really interesting. I’ve had Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking recommended to me, but haven’t gotten to it yet.

    In a high school sociology class I remember reading a book by Didion that had some writing about the Manson family and their influence on culture – I’ve forgotten the title but maybe this is it?

  • Kim November 18, 2008, 3:13 pm

    bermudaonion: Yeah, it’s a good book, one I appreciated more after discussing it in class.

    Joanne: I have The Year of Magical Thinking on my TBR shelf right now. I think the book that has the Manson family in it is The White Album, this one doesn’t talk about the Manson family at all.

  • Sandra November 19, 2008, 9:54 am

    I enjoyed your review very much. I really liked this book but then I’ve liked all her books that I’ve read. The White Album, which I read when it came out and loved, but then I’m a sixties girl. Miami and is very well written, and After Henry was touching. I recently acquired a copy of Play It As It Lays so I have that to look forward to.

  • Kim November 19, 2008, 12:36 pm

    Sandra: I’m looking forward to reading more Didion very much. She’s a lot more prolific than I thought she was, so I have plenty to choose from that’s for sure.

  • bkclubcare November 19, 2008, 3:58 pm

    I am fascinated by Didion… golly, just another too-many-books sigh.

  • Kim November 19, 2008, 7:14 pm

    bkclubcare: I know, I’m super fascinated by her too. She’s just such an interesting writer to study because she’s done so much writing. Plus, I think literary journalism is my favorite genre, so I have to be interested in her 🙂