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Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays (1968)

by Joan Didion

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
3,251632,971 (4.11)107
The "dazzling" and essential portrayal of 1960s America from the author of South and West and The Year of Magical Thinking (The New York Times). Capturing the tumultuous landscape of the United States, and in particular California, during a pivotal era of social change, the first work of nonfiction from one of American literature's most distinctive prose stylists is a modern classic. In twenty razor-sharp essays that redefined the art of journalism, National Book Award-winning author Joan Didion reports on a society gripped by a deep generational divide, from the "misplaced children" dropping acid in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district to Hollywood legend John Wayne filming his first picture after a bout with cancer. She paints indelible portraits of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes and folk singer Joan Baez, "a personality before she was entirely a person," and takes readers on eye-opening journeys to Death Valley, Hawaii, and Las Vegas, "the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements." First published in 1968, Slouching Towards Bethlehem has been heralded by the New York Times Book Review as "a rare display of some of the best prose written today in this country" and named to Time magazine's list of the one hundred best and most influential nonfiction books. It is the definitive account of a terrifying and transformative decade in American history whose discordant reverberations continue to sound a half-century later.… (more)
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» See also 107 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 63 (next | show all)
Didion writes for herself, stitching together errant observations of people and the cultural milieu in 1960s California. While this slice of time and space is not particularly interesting to me, I love how confidently Didion writes, pretty much like a man that takes for granted that his words will be considered interesting by others. I felt low-key anxious reading her essays, though, suffocated by the performative behavior, unhappiness, and lack of self awareness among the people she describes.

( )
  jiyoungh | May 3, 2021 |
“...I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind's door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.”

I loved these essays. I could go on quoting Didion on and on, there are just too many great passages, great insights from her.

The truth is that I am full of envy. I envy Joan Didion’s facility with words. In a vernacular that is erudite without being stuffy, poetic without being overly romantic, extremely precise and sharp, she distill her thoughts skilfully.

I actually listen to it in audio format, and I know I am going to listen to one or another essay when I need something short to amuse me. But I am also going to buy the book because I want to highlight some passages, and because I want to give my own cadence to her voice. Diane Keaton narrated the version I listened and I did enjoy her voice. She sounded youthful, and made Didion’s monologues less cultured or intellectual than I perceive Didion to be. Which, surprisingly, I felt worked well. It gave Didion’s thoughts a new layer, more accessible and amicable.

This collection is said to capture the essence of 1960’s America, and I think it does. We have John Wayne, Joan Baez, San Francisco and hippies… yet, the personal essays will stay with me longer: self-respect, immorality and the power of going home are obviously more material to me than historical commentary on America.

I don’t know what I will read next, because it will be such a letdown after this book. I feel I am coming down from a high, and right now all I wanted is more of Didion’s words. Like a junkie I may just start from the beginning again. Someone please help me!


( )
  RosanaDR | Apr 15, 2021 |
One of my greatest inspirations. I can only hope one day to write with the calm, assurance and grace as Ms. Didion. ( )
  Smokler | Jan 3, 2021 |
On the surface, the subjects covered in this collection of essays might seem dated. Lucille Miller's murder of her husband in San Barnardino, CA. Who is Lucille Miller? John Wayne, finishing up a movie while recovering from lung cancer. Joan Baez and the Institute for the Study of Non-Violence. Howard Hughes. The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. Haight-Asbury in 1967.

But the writing doesn't feel dated. The writing feels like it is from just yesterday, or perhaps today. Joan Didion describes times and places that no longer exist. She doesn't describe as a historian; she describes the feel and smell and sense of time and place; she describes what is so hard to get once it is gone. Sacramento, what it once was that a resident today will never know. Hawaii, what it was when it was controlled by a few elite families. Alcatraz, after it was closed but before it became a tourist attraction. Working and living in NYC in your 20's. She captures moments and places in time for which we often depend today on film but does it in ways that even film struggles to capture. ( )
  afkendrick | Oct 24, 2020 |
Interesting read, I enjoyed the writing, but I felt the book needed something to pull it together. ( )
  Happenence | Oct 2, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 63 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Joan Didionprimary authorall editionscalculated
Keaton, DianeNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
W. B. Yeats's poem beginning:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;


...is set down in full, as well as a quote from Miss Peggy Lee:

I learned courage from Buddah, Jesus, Lincoln, Einstein, and Cary Grant.
Dedication
For Quintana
First words
This is a story about love and death in the golden land, and begins with the country.
Quotations
To have that sense of one's intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent. To lack it is to be locked within oneself, paradoxically incapable of either love or indifference.
It is often said that New York City is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city for only the very young.
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The "dazzling" and essential portrayal of 1960s America from the author of South and West and The Year of Magical Thinking (The New York Times). Capturing the tumultuous landscape of the United States, and in particular California, during a pivotal era of social change, the first work of nonfiction from one of American literature's most distinctive prose stylists is a modern classic. In twenty razor-sharp essays that redefined the art of journalism, National Book Award-winning author Joan Didion reports on a society gripped by a deep generational divide, from the "misplaced children" dropping acid in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district to Hollywood legend John Wayne filming his first picture after a bout with cancer. She paints indelible portraits of reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes and folk singer Joan Baez, "a personality before she was entirely a person," and takes readers on eye-opening journeys to Death Valley, Hawaii, and Las Vegas, "the most extreme and allegorical of American settlements." First published in 1968, Slouching Towards Bethlehem has been heralded by the New York Times Book Review as "a rare display of some of the best prose written today in this country" and named to Time magazine's list of the one hundred best and most influential nonfiction books. It is the definitive account of a terrifying and transformative decade in American history whose discordant reverberations continue to sound a half-century later.

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