Let Me Tell You What I Mean by Joan Didion is a collection of twelve essays published from 1968 to 2000 covering a wide range of topics from newspapers to Nancy Reagan to Martha Stewart. Didion is the author of five novels, ten books of nonfiction and a play. Her writing career began when she was a senior at the University of California at Berkley when she won a writing contest sponsored by Vogue magazine. She was hired as a research assistant at Vogue and worked her way up to editing positions.
Didion has an interesting take on newspapers. She cites the only newspapers that don’t make her feel that oxygen has been cut off from her brain are the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Free Press, the Los Angeles Open City and the East Village Other. As she describes the Wall Street Journal, this newspaper speaks to her directly as do the “underground” newspapers she mentions. She does note that she feels this way even though, parenthetically, she has minimal interest in what they are saying. In all of these cases, she feels, that unlike major newspapers, they are clear about their biases. The New York Times, on the other hand, brings out in [her] “only unpleasant agrarian aggressions.”
One particularly timely essay, given recent college admissions scandals, is entitled “On Being Unchosen by the College of One’s Choice.” It’s the time of year when seniors are waiting for word from the college of their choice. Didion pulls out a letter which she has kept for years to share with her 17-year-old cousin who can hardly eat or sleep as she waits for word from her choice. The “Dear Joan” letter states that the “Committee on admissions asks me to inform you that it is unable to take favorable action upon your application for admission to Stanford University.” Her response to this news was to cry for two hours, particularly because her friends who had applied to Stanford were admitted. But she rallies (probably not immediately), takes classes at a junior college and then is accepted at the University of California at Berkley. At the time she wrote this, she was concerned about the parental involvement in acceptance or rejection, as though it were happening to them. Her parents wanted her to be happy and weren’t invested in her getting into a “good” school, or if she even went to college. She closes this essay with “And of course none of it matters very much at all, none of these early successes, early failures. I wonder if we had better not find some way to let our children know this, some way to extricate our expectations from theirs, some way to let them work through their own rejections…unassisted by anxious prompting from the wings.”
If you are not familiar with Joan Didion, I hope you will take the opportunity to read this book. Most of the essays are fairly short and the entire book is less than two hundred pages. I was a little put off by the 35-page foreword to the book by writer, Hilton Als. I was far more interested in her words than his words about her.
Let Me Tell You What I Mean is published in hardcover by Knopf and retails for $23.