7 Essential Books By And About Joan Didion, To Prepare For The Netflix Documentary

by E. Ce Miller

All the way back in October of 2014 Vogue magazine was the first to announce that a documentary about Joan Didion was officially on its way to screens near you — a not-surprising choice since Vogue was the magazine where Didion started her writing career, over 60 years ago. That documentary, then-titled We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order to Live has now been snatched up by Netflix, under the revised title Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, slated for a global release next year. (Yeah, all the feels.)

Directed by Didion’s very own nephew, the actor and producer Griffin Dunne, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold began as a Kickstarter project that earned nearly triple its $80,000 goal — needless to say, readers have been eager for a glimpse into the iconic writer’s notoriously-private life. (Desperate for a preview? Check out the trailer below.)

Produced in collaboration with Didion herself, Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold “traces the arc of Joan’s life through her own writings, and in her own voice. [The] film will tell Joan’s story through passages she has chosen (and will read aloud) from her work, as her friends, family, colleagues and critics share their accounts of her remarkable life and writing,” according to the documentary’s Kickstarter campaign website. And it will include, among other juicy tidbits from the writer’s life, stories about “partying with Janis Joplin in a house full of L.A. rockers; hanging in a recording studio with Jim Morrison; and cooking dinner for one of Charles Manson’s women for a magazine story,” states a Netflix press release from August 23.

But with months left before the documentary’s big release, what’s an eager Joan Didion fan to do? Read, of course! Listed below are six of the most celebrated Didion titles — plus the first print biography ever published about the writer. Read them, re-read them, and then gear up for the event Didion fans have been waiting for.

'The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion' by Tracy Daugherty

As the first published biography of Joan Didion’s life, Tracy Daugherty’s The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion became a quick New York Times bestseller. It’s the book readers and fans of Didion have been waiting for since we picked up Slouching Towards Bethlehem, or maybe The White Album, for the very first time. Often reading like fiction and pulling on many of Didion’s own writings, The Last Love Song takes readers through the life — and primarily the work — of the iconic writer who captures American nostalgia like few other writers do. But Daugherty is not as starry-eyed as most Didion readers might be — he’s critical of the writer as a wife and mother, as much as Didion has been of herself in her own writing, even as he recognizes her unparalleled storytelling.

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'Slouching Towards Bethlehem' by Joan Didion

This is the book that made me fall in love with Joan Didion — as is true for countless other fans of the journalist’s work. Transporting readers back to the iconic terrain of 1960s California, Slouching Towards Bethlehem is a collection of essays and articles that tackle both the insatiable hope and the dark malcontent of American youth during the decade. Particularity zeroing in on the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, Slouching Towards Bethlehem chronicles upheaval and revolution, rebellion and drug use, wealth and fame, the experience of being a misfit within your own generation, and so much more.

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'The White Album' by Joan Didion

While Slouching Towards Bethlehem stole my heart (and lots of shelf space reserved for the rest of Joan Didion’s work) The White Album captured it, forever. Beginning on the floor of a recording studio where The Doors’ front-man, Jim Morrison, was being predictably troublesome, The White Album is another collection of strikingly haunting essays about music, memory, and the post-Summer of Love years in America. In this collection, Didion begins with one of the last recording sessions of the infamous Doors, before taking readers through pivotal cultural events like the Manson murders and the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party. This collection is proof that few writers captured the generation like Didion could.

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'Where I Was From' by Joan Didion

Published in 2003, Where I Was From is a title from Joan Didion’s more-recently published works, exploring Didion’s familiar terrain of California from a vantage point much further out from the 1960s and ‘70s than her previous works. This collection is less traditionally Didion, including more memoir alongside her reportage, with a healthy dose of literary criticism, cultural analysis, and historical research thrown in for good measure. The essays in Where I Was From explore parts of Didion’s own personal life against the backdrop of California, demonstrating how the energy and atmosphere of the west coast informed her writing, her interests, and her experiences.

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'The Year of Magical Thinking' by Joan Didion

Another iconic Joan Didion title, The Year of Magical Thinking takes readers through one of the most impossible losses the writer has experienced in her life — the illness and subsequent death of her daughter and the sudden and shocking death of her husband, which occurred close together. Published just two years after Where I Was From, The Year of Magical Thinking finds Didion at the moment of her husband’s death, at the bedside of her ill daughter, and in the year following both tragic events. In its pages, Didion explores her preconceived and evolving ideas about life, loss, death, and what it means to be the lone family member left behind to pick up the pieces.

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'Blue Nights' by Joan Didion

Another read chronicling the tragedy of Joan Didion’s late-in-life losses, Blue Nights is the writer’s account of the death of her adopted daughter, Quintana Roo, at just 39-years-old. Often critical of herself as a mother, Didion explores loss, parenthood, and aging in a sometimes straightforward, sometimes non-linear, and sometimes nihilistic way. This one is bare, unedited grief from beginning to end, and offers readers a rare and intimate glimpse into Didion as a mother and a woman coping with unimaginable loss.

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'South and West: From a Notebook' by Joan Didion

Finally, the most recent Joan Didion title to land on bookstores shelves — so recent, you might not have even had time to read it yet! — South and West: From a Notebook is 2017’s brand new Didion read. Published earlier this year, South and West features two extended excerpts from the notorious notebook-keeper’s never-before-seen notebooks. The first excerpt takes readers on a road trip through the southern United States: traversing Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The second takes readers through Didion’s usual California landscape, during the Patty Hearst trial of 1976. Don't miss this one.

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