Let Me Tell You What I Mean | Joan Didion #USAessays

A peculiar aspect of Joan Didion’s nonfiction is that a significant portion of it reads like fiction. Or, more specifically, has the metaphorical power of great fiction.

Foreword by Hilton Als

Last year I had had a copy of Let Me Tell You What I Mean floating around on my TBR pile for a number of months, but it took the sad news that Joan Didion had died on the 23rd December 2021, for me to finally tuck her book into my walking backpack.

However, thanks to various seasonal and Covid-related events at this time, the book languished in my bag waiting for some good walking days to return. It finally happened last week. The rain held off, isolation periods were over, and I was finally able to go for a nice long walk on my day off work that culminated in a nice long sit in my favourite cafe with a large coffee and time for a leisurely read.

Let Me Tell You What I Mean contains twelve essays mostly from the earlier part of Didion’s writing career. They were quick, easy reads. The essays were a curious mix of opinion, interview and observation. They were also heavily American-centric making some cultural references obscure to the overseas reader. I found they worked best when the personal was mixed in with the cultural as in the 1968 essay about William Randolph Hearst, A Trip to Xanadu.

My knowledge of Hearst is probably limited to the 1941 movie, Citizen Kane. But for those who grew up in California, like Didion did, his name and his ‘phantasmagoric barony‘, San Simeon, are part of their own childhood stories. Therefore, a tour of the house allowed Didion to explore her own expectations with what the house was during Hearst’s time, and what it has now become as a tourist destination.

After reading Als foreword I was expecting to find the essays harder work than they actually were. Didion’s tone was dry and thoughtful, yet also conversational. Each essay was carefully worded and crafted but they appeared effortless. Many of Didion’s well-known opinions were evident early on in her writing as we saw in Alicia and the Underground Press (1968).

I admire objectivity very much indeed, but I fail to see how it can be achieved if the reader does not understand the writer’s particular bias. For the writer to pretend that he has none lends the entire venture a mendacity.

One of my favourite essays was On Being Unchosen by the College of One’s Choice (1968). It took a pivotal moment in her young life that was initially devastating but which allowed her to take a different path to the one she thought she would take, that ‘worked out alright.’ It contained some nice undertones about resilience, persistence and self-determination. However, even in 1968 Didion was noting and concerned by the rise in ‘parental hopes‘ that now accompanied most young people finishing school.

Of course my mother and father wanted me to be happy, and of course they expected that happiness would necessarily entail accomplishment, but the terms of that accomplishment were my affair.

There was a rather biting piece on a young Nancy Reagan as the wife of the governor of California, a homage to Orwell on why Didion writes, a discussion on the women that Robert Mapplethorpe chose to photograph, a scrutiny of the brand that is Martha Stewart (before her time in jail) and a piece on Hemingway that almost convinced me to try one more book by him.

You care about punctuation or you don’t, and Hemingway did. You care about the “ands” and the “buts” or you don’t, and Hemingway did. You think something is in shape to be published or you don’t, and Hemingway didn’t.

Last Words | 1991

I’m not sure I will race out to read more of Didion’s essays, but I am keen to read The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights as grief and loss memoirs will always find a place on my reading list. I sometimes wonder if I am trying to ward off the evil eye by reading so many books on this topic. Or perhaps I am simply trying to prepare myself for the inevitable?

Let Me Tell You What I Mean will appeal to the Didion aficionado’s. There was also enough of interest to tempt a newbie like me to want to try some more.

Title: Let Me Tell You What I Mean
Author: Joan Didion
Jacket design: Jo Thomson
ISBN: 9780008451752
Imprint: 4th Estate
Published: 4th February 2021
Format: Hardback
Pages: 149

21 thoughts on “Let Me Tell You What I Mean | Joan Didion #USAessays

  1. I’ve only read The Year of Magical Thinking which I really enjoyed. Like you, I have an essay collection buried in the TBR, I really must dig it out! I don’t think she speaks to me as directly as much as some other readers find, but she’s certainly thought-provoking.

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  2. There are some Library of America editions of her work that have tempted me on occasion but they are in constant demand in the library system (and they’re MASSIVE of course, which is part of their appeal too). A documentary I watched last year piqued my interest further but, at the same time, i feel like her lens is very removed from my own lived experience; in my mind, she’s a focussed just-getting-by-while-devoted-to-my-art type of author but in reality I think she had a very privileged and fortunate life.

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    1. Until this week, I’ve only read a few pieces ABOUT Didion and certainly her privileged background come up in those. But I also got the impression her life was sad rather than fortunate, but perhaps that is because I have focused my gaze on her grief memoirs rather than her essays and fiction?

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    1. Ooops, I just realised I spelt his name incorrectly! Thanks Pam 🙂
      Didion mentioned a number of newspapers, journals and magazines in her essays that I had never heard of before, so it was hard to know if she was being critical or snobbish or both.

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  3. I really have to read Didion at some point; just do not know what that point is. The essays seems to me like a good place to start; I am not sure about year of magical thinking. You think you are warding off the black clouds, and I think I have so many black clouds already and who knows how many more to come, that I avoid such volumes. Though I do know this particular book is not only about grief but also resilience and moving on. But yet I hesitate One day, maybe I will be brave enough to venture forth; until then there are other books waiting to be read!

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    1. Indeed! Every book has it’s right time and place, and for some books that right time and place may never actually arrive. But we know they are out there, waiting for us, if we do need them.
      These essays were very easy to read and enjoy. A snapshot into a time and place in American history now gone.

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  4. I’m afraid I didn’t know there was a Joan Didion until she died and everyone started writing about her. I’ve seen Citizen Kane (I even know the significance of ‘Rosebud’) but my favourite Hearst is Pattie the bank robber and revolutionary. She suits my times.

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      1. I’ve checked Wiki, she is. In 1970 she was far better known than WR Hearst who was just a historical figure and probably completely forgettable except for Citizen Kane, which I’ve seen a few times – art house movies used to be in constant circulation, but that doesn’t seem to be the case any more, I guess they’re all available on demand, which I don’t bother with, or at film clubs. Hey, Sue, are there still film clubs?

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  5. I loved The year of magical thinking, and would read it again, but besides that I’ve only read the essay I reviewed on my blog. I’d love to read more. Having lived in the USA a couple of times, the American-centric references would probably not bother me.

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