Top Picks: Joan Didion

Legendary journalist, memoirist and novelist Joan Didion turns 85 on December 4. In honor of her wide-ranging career, here's a look at her most groundbreaking work. 

Born in Sacramento, Calif., Didion frequently moved around as a young child—her father served in the Army Air Corps—and she did not attend school on a regular basis. Instead, Didion recalls spending time in the public library reading anything she could. Encouraged by her mother to write things down as early as age 5, Didion claims she never imagined herself as a writer until her work was published.  

Slouching Towards Bethlehelm, Didion's first published essay collection about the counterculture in California during the 1960s, received wide acclaim and is known today as an early example of New Journalism. Much of Didion's work has been associated with the New Journalism movement, which seeks to communicate facts through narrative storytelling and literary techniques. 

After publishing the novels Run River and Play It as It Lays, Didion went on to co-write a handful of screen plays with her husband. Shortly thereafter, Didion published The White Album, another collection of essays previously published in such magazines as Life and Esquire. "We tell ourselves stories in order to live" is the opening sentence of the title essay from this collection; it has become one of Didion's best-known sayings. 

Didion is perhaps best known today for her National Book Award-winning memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, an account of the year following the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. It was immediately acclaimed as a classic on grief and mourning, as Didion was caring for her critically ill daughter while also grieving the loss of her husband. Her daughter died shortly before The Year of Magical Thinking was published, and Didion chronicles that experience in Blue Nights. The Year of Magical Thinking was later adapted into a play, which premiered on Broadway in 2007.

In 2006, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live was published, featuring a compilation of essays and nonfiction writings spanning more than 40 years of Didion's writing. Her reflections on politics, lifestyle and cultural figures, including such topics as Haight-Ashbury, the Manson family, the Black Panthers, California earthquakes and Bill Clinton, are all included.

Didion’s work has been recognized on many occasions. She received an honorary Doctor of Letters from Harvard University in 2009 and an honorary degree from Yale in 2011. In 2013, she was awarded a National Medal of Arts and Humanities by President Obama and the PEN Center USA’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

What's your favorite Joan Didion work?

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