from my bookshelf: after henry by joan didion


this book of essays was written in memory of henry robbins, didion’s editor. in part, subjects include: the reagan presidency (and the disconnect between the reagans and average americans); michael dukakis’ 1988 presidential campaign; patty hearst’s kidnapping by the symbionese liberation army; didion’s education and career at berkeley; a los angeles murder trial merging celebrity and crime; the history of the la times newspaper; and the 1989 nyc rape case of the central park jogger. didion’s cool signature writing style and ability to translate complex–often controversial–issues into keen insights, mirrors her intellect, perception, and aptness to absorb and interpret events and characters that shape our society.


“What these men represented was not the ‘West’ but what was for this century a relatively new kind of monied class in America, a group devoid of social responsibilities precisely because their ties to any one place had been so attenuated.”

“…it had not been by accident that the people with whom I had preferred to spend time in high school had, on the whole, hung out in gas stations.”

“…people inside the process…a new kind of managerial elite, tend to speak of the world not necessarily as it is but as they want people out there to believe it is.”

“…the assumption here, that the narrative should be not just written only by its own specialists but also legible only to its own specialists, is why, finally, an American presidential campaign raises questions that go so vertiginously to the heart of the structure.”

“What strikes one most vividly about such a campaign is precisely its remoteness from the actual life of the country.”

“This notion, that the citizen’s choice among determinedly centrist candidates makes a ‘difference,’ is in fact the narrative’s most central element, and also its most fictive.”

“…the narrative was not only written but immediately, efficiently, entirely, consumed.”

“This is in fact the kind of story we expect to hear about our elected officials. We not only expect them to use other nations as changeable scrims in the theater of domestic politics but encourage them to do so.”

“History is context.”

“There was no actual connection between turkey legs thrown through windows in West Oakland and William Knowland lying facedown in the Russian River, but the paradigm was manifest, one California busy being born and another busy dying.”

“…for a Hearst to be kidnapped from Berkeley, the very citadel of Phoebe Hearst’s aspiration, was California as opera.”

“A good part of any day in Los Angeles is spent driving, alone, through streets devoid of meaning to the driver, which is one reason the place exhilarates some people, and floods others with an amorphous unease. There is about these hours spent in transit a seductive unconnectedness. Conventional information is missing. Context clues are missing.”

“Our children remind us of how random our lives have been.”

“…we never reach a point at which our lives lie before us a clearly marked open road, never have and never should expect a map to the years ahead, never do close those circles that seem, at thirteen and fourteen and nineteen, so urgently in need of closing.”

“I hoarded nuts and bits of chocolate in my desk drawer. I ate tacos for dinner (combination plates, con arroz y frijoles), wrapped myself in my bedspread and read until two A.M., smoked too many cigarettes and regretted, like a student, only their cost.”

“…I was once again dulled, glazed, sunk in an excess of carbohydrates and in my own mediocrity, in my failure–still, after twenty years!–to ‘live up to’ the day’s possibilities.”

“At nineteen I had wanted to write. At forty I still wanted to write, and nothing that happened in the years between made me any more certain that I could.”

“Murder cases are generally of interest to the extent that they suggest some anomaly or lesson in the world revealed…”

“Stories in which terrible crimes are inflicted on innocent victims, offering as they do a similarly sentimental reading of class differences and human suffering, a reading that promises both resolution and retribution, have long performed as the city’s endorphins, a built-in source of natural morphine working to blur the edges of real and to a great extent insoluble problems.”

“The narrative comforts us, in other words, with the assurance that the world is knowable, even flat, and New York its center, its motor, its dangerous but vital ‘energy’.”

“The imposition of a sentimental, or false, narrative on the disparate and often random experience that constitutes the life of a city or a country means, necessarily, that much of what happens in that city or country will be rendered merely illustrative, a series of set pieces, or performance opportunities.”