Reading the Landscape, Not Reading Many Books

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I’ve been back from an epic family trip in Europe for a week now, and the mountains of laundry are done, the suitcases have been put away, the empty fridge has been filled, the dog and cat are happy to be back to their comfortable beds, and the fog of jet lag has finally lifted enough for me to realize how little reading I did on our trip and how far behind I am despite stowing three books in my carry-on, in addition to coming home with two more books (and helping to carry the twenty books my daughter had to take with her for her summer course in Oxford). As I was towing my two thousand pound suitcase through Paddington Station, then St. Pancras Station, then Gard du Nord, and finally Amsterdam Central Station, I wondered if other people travel with approximately their body’s weight in literature, and I realized that it made no difference, since I didn’t read  very much at all to begin with. I’d been unrealistically optimistic in what I thought I would get done, because as soon as the trip began, I ended up spending much more time staring out the train window at the countryside speeding by than burying my eyes in a book (as much as I wanted to keep reading! Do Rick Steves’ Guidebooks to Paris, London, and Amsterdam count towards the book challenge?), and that any time not spent looking would be better spent writing about what I was seeing, since I probably won’t get to do a trip like this ever again.

But then there was an eight-hour plane trip back from Amsterdam, and I was awake enough to finish Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem since the movie offerings were lackluster, and besides, there wasn’t much to see out the plane window at thirty-two thousand feet except for clouds and sky.

I had read Didion’s essay “Goodbye To All That” (in conversation with Eula Biss’ essay of the same name) in July for a creative nonfiction course I was in, and I decided impulsively that I wanted to read the rest of Didion’s book from which the essay had been taken. And actually, technically, it was a re-read, since I had read Slouching Towards Bethlehem when I moved to California in 1998. I was trying to understand this new place I was living in, and Didion’s iconic take on leaving the east for her native California resonated with me, even though I didn’t understand California until I did the reverse move back to the east.

The title itself is a good indication of how Didion views the kind of life that California presents. “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” is a poem by Yeats, and perhaps the most well-know lines are “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/ Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” In these collected essays, Didion explores the way things fall apart, both socially and morally and emotionally, and yet how the dream of Western life keeps chaos tethered to reality. California becomes a place of contradictory tensions–and this is the California of the late 1960’s–unreadable to the rest of the nation, but clearly discernible to Didion who grew up outside Sacramento in the ’40’s when it was not much more than a small town: “When I first saw New York, I was twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already, even in the old Idlewild temporary terminal….”

Didion writes about the oppressiveness of a newly-created suburban enclave beset by boredom and consumerism: “The San Bernardino Valley lies only an hour east of Los Angeles but it is in certain ways an alien place; not the coastal California of the subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific but a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves.” This is a California, a Western lands-end of murderers, movie stars, ideological Marxist-Leninists, think-tank men, Joan Baez standing against her NIMBY neighbors who think her school for nonviolence will bring down property values, Howard Hughes, Las Vegas wedding chapels, and the hippies of Haight-Ashbury. Didion herself observes everything and writes to the center of what she sees and hears: “When I first went to San Francisco in that cold late spring of 1967 I did not even know what I wanted to find out, and so I just stayed around awhile, and made a few friends.”

These are essays that transform the idea of an essay as a “working-through,” a “trying out.” Didion never falters in the way her taut language pulls the reader through her observations and analysis, and she holds herself to the same high standard she applies to what she critiques; she never lets herself off the hook. “I hurt the people I cared about, and insulted those I did not. I cut myself off from the one person who was closer to me than any other….I had never before understood what ‘despair’ meant, and I am not sure I understand now, but I understood that year. Of course I could not work.” The personal in these essays only makes her observations more acute.

In the end, Didion’s essays are more about the conceptual place we find ourselves at different times in our lives, and how we respond to pressures and influences that shape, often unconsciously, the way we regard ourselves. This is not an East or West of unrealized dreams as much as a place of self-invention. “All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young any more.” Didion’s writing tells us about ourselves in relation to where we are, and so Slouching Towards Bethlehem is still as relevant today as it was back when “relevance” was the language of the moment.


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