In what is becoming a regular phenomenon, I’ve been simultaneously listening to and reading books. I just finished Joan Didion’s 1979 collection of essays, The White Album (book here, audiobook here), and I have to say, this hybrid read/listen thing is actually pretty great.
There are moments when I want just to listen. And other moments when I want to see the words on the page. Audiobooks are a river that you float along on, not all that great for stopping and reflecting on what you’ve heard. That’s usually an OK way to absorb a book—especially a novel with a lot of incident. With Didion, the writing is so crystalline and spare that there were moments when I’d go find my print edition so I could see exactly how, for example, she structured her essay about shopping malls.
It’s a great essay, the shopping mall essay. These are all great essays. Didion keeps her distance while simultaneously taking us deep into a world we didn’t know existed. An orchid farm in Malibu, for example. By the end of the orchid-farming essay, I was in tears. I wonder: was she ever in tears about the orchid farmer?
OK, so maybe I’m in tears on a regular basis. But the tale of the orchid farmer, and the surreal context in which he breeds orchids, is one of those classic Didion mashups of excess and beauty and horror.
The narrator, Susan Varon, is terrific. She captures the coolness of Joan Didion, but also the humanity. If you want to read an essay about what it’s like to suffer from migraines, this is such a fine piece of writing.
Or both, actually.