It took a year for me to read Joan Didion, Democracy but because of its size I took it along with me on a number of trips as a ‘back-up.’ Just a little book, just 240 pages or so. Easy to pack, easy to start and put aside if necessary. ‘A guaranteed hit.’ Shoved into my pack at the last moment, just in case. But after all that I didn’t actually read it until this August.
And this is the trust of a favourite author and also the curse – to some degree I take a favourite author for granted; they’ll always be there. And I’ll read everything else like candy but I’ll save an unread book by a favourite author for years because that way I know I’ll always have something left in the tank. A safety net; if everything else is bad, I still have an option on hand. The last chocolate in the box. In case of emergency, break glass.
When I read The Last Thing He Wanted I felt the same way that people do when they hear My Bloody Valentine for the first time, or in my case, how I felt when I first heard The Blue Nile earlier this summer. I didn’t know it could ever be like that. I didn’t know it was possible. I didn’t know you could write a book as spare, as circular, a book that manages to surround its subject without ever really touching down. And if anything, Democracy manages to go even further. A little purposeless puzzle of repetition and distancing devices, strategies and recursive points of plot.
I started reading The Last Thing He Wanted after reading Play It As It Lays over just three hours in the lobby of a Portland hotel. I read After Henry on my next trip, coming back from Portland the next month.
Do people read Joan Didion anymore? I get the sense, perhaps without any evidence – certainly none I could add here as a link – that at some point, perhaps before I was born and certainly before I left high school, people stopped reading Joan Didion and instead read her myth at face value. All the little comments and words that could flip either way and probably have through her career – cool / detached / removed / aloof / ‘more style than substance.’ And before I learned the myth, I read her books and therefore could take them at face value.
I am not an especially critical reader. I read what interests me; that could be based on author, subject matter, cover design, time of year, time of day. Subjective factors. And because I read what I want to, when I want to, I end up liking most of what I read. And because I rarely pull back, unhappy, from a book I have this self-image of someone who likes everything, someone resolutely uncritical. Here is my own concession to myth: I feel that reading Joan Didion is a counterpoint to that self-image. To rephrase: I feel that reading Joan Didion makes me cool.