Book Review: The White Album

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” This simple sentence is how The White Album, a collection of essays written by renowned journalist Joan Didion, begins. Perhaps, no one is a greater example of this idea than Didion, herself. Her command of the English language and her way of storytelling will change the way you view even the most mundane parts of the world. The White Album, the second of 13 nonfiction books that she has written, follows the tumultuous end to the 1960s and Didion’s thoughts on a number of subjects, including the Hollywood elite, the women’s movement, Georgia O’Keefe, and shopping malls. Didion delivers all of her beliefs and opinions through honest opinion and straightforward, yet moving prose.

There are 20 essays in The White Album, and while all of them are worth the read, there are a few that stuck out to me. The first one is the title essay, “The White Album.” In this essay, Didion talks, with surprising frankness, about the nervous breakdown that she had in 1968. She goes on about her feelings of inadequacy, and how she felt as though things affected her differently than they did other people. One of my favorite quotes from the book comes from these first few pages:

"The only problem was that my entire education, everything I had ever been told or had told myself, insisted that the production was never meant to be improvised: I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it. I was supposed to hear cues, and no longer did. I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw."

This essay is the perfect one to open the book with. It offers insight into Didion herself and also gives context for the rest of her essays and why she views the world the way she does. It humanizes her and makes the reader feel as though they are being let into the inner parts of her mind.

Another one of my favorite essays from The White Album is “Georgia O’Keefe.” It is one of the shortest in the book, but Didion’s talent and passion really shine through. She describes O’Keefe as being “hard” and “aggressive,” (127) but while others may see these as negative attributes in a woman, these are the main reasons Didion admires her so much. Didion paints a picture of O’Keefe as vivid as any of O’Keefe’s paintings, making it hard not to come out the other side loving and respecting O’Keefe as much as Didion does. She says O’Keefe is someone who had “been equipped early with an immutable sense of who she was and a fairly clear understanding that she would be required to prove it” (129). Knowing what we know about Didion’s own self-doubts, it becomes obvious, in this instance, why O’Keefe was important enough to Didion to dedicate a whole essay to.

Finally, to round out my top three, “Quiet Days in Malibu” really stuck with me. It is the last essay of the book and Didion covers a few different subjects that all revolve her time living in Malibu. She talks about meeting the lifeguards who patrolled the beaches, capturing the serious yet “poetic” (213) way they talked about their duties. The main focus of this essay, however, is on orchid breeders and a Mexican immigrant named Amado Vasquez. It is is another instance where Didion pulls you in and makes you care about a subject you had probably never even thought once about. The world of exotic orchid breeding suddenly becomes exciting and in just a few pages I found myself caring deeply about Vasquez and his passion for these flowers.

While The White Album focuses on Didion’s experiences in the late 1960s and early 1970s, her writing and thoughts have stood the test of time. Even if the subject of some essays may be outdated, the opinions and life lessons Didion derive from them are not. Despite only talking about three of the essays here, all of them deserve recognition. Didion is able to take even the most mundane subjects and turn them into something fascinating that will leave you thinking about it for days afterward.

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