Dear Joan Didion: Part 2

The thing I miss most about college is literature classes. I had a writing concentration but writing about literature was always when I felt most myself. I took mostly American lit courses, and each course inevitably involved at least one book or author I didn’t think I wanted to read. Sometimes, I discovered a new love, and sometimes I read a book I hated. Either way, I never regretted the experience. There’s nothing quite like hating a book in a literature class. Explaining why a book is terrible in eight to ten double-spaced pages with MLA documentation filled me with joy. I believe that figuring out what you don’t like is as important as figuring out what you do, and reading books has always been part of both sides of that. Now that I am years away from undergrad, I sometimes find it hard to decide what to read.

I think that’s why I latched on to the idea of this list, Joan Didion’s 12 Favorite Books. It’s like a literature class taught by you, and I’ve been considering your list for almost a month now.


Your handwriting is super readable. Don’t worry about that. I didn’t need this typed list and explanation at all.

Let’s talk about these choices. First of all, there are not twelve books on this list. There are more like nineteen to twenty-five titles there. Secondly, I have already read Portrait of a Lady and Daisy Miller and I’m not reading any more Henry James. Daisy Miller fueled one of those aforementioned hate-papers.

I’m going to try to read all of the others this year. I started with Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin. I like Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” very much and I’ve taught it a couple times in literature classes. There’s another Baldwin novel, Notes of a Native Son, but I picked Go Tell It on the Mountain because that song was one of the first songs I learned to play on the trombone in sixth grade and I’ve always had a special place in my heart for it.

Well, I will save no special place for this novel. The story involved a family of individuals coming in and out of relationships with God. The subject matter put me off for sure, but I withheld judgement because I really do like Baldwin’s writing. The book was well-written enough, but the Jesus theme got tedious. When my favorite character John, who had struggled for the entire novel because his father the preacher wanted him to be saved but he wasn’t sure that was what he wanted or if that was even real, fell to the floor and was born again (which took at least twenty pages), I felt cheated somehow. There was no emotional or intellectual payoff in that book. I don’t need a clean, tight resolution, but I need to feel like I read a book for a reason. I didn’t get that with Go Tell It on the Mountain, and I can’t figure out why it is on this list. There are so many books in the world; why waste a spot on this short list with a boring, annoying one?

Right now I’m reading Wonderland by Joyce Carol Oates. I’m not too far into it yet but I like it so far because I am used to Oates’ twisted characters and unsettling plots. I have read a lot of novels by Oates, and I can’t remember the details of any of them, except The Rise of Life on Earth. The part where the narrator gives herself an abortion in the shower really traumatized me. Wonderland isn’t too traumatizing so far, other than the part where the main character comes home from school to find that his father has murdered his entire family. I don’t know what the novel is really about yet, and that’s OK. I like getting to know a book gently and cautiously.

You’ve probably noticed that I’m wading into this list slowly. I’m saving Crime and Punishment and One Hundred Years of Solitude for some other, more disciplined and focused time down the line. I may not get through this whole list this year, but I’m really excited to try. Thanks for that.