I wanted to like this book. I thought I did like it for the first few essays, but in the end I found Slouching Towards Bethlehem to be a big disappointment and waste of time. Joan Didion is one of those authors I'd always vaguely heard of, but never read, and then became much more aware of after the fashion brand Céline used her in an advertising campaign, much promoted on Instagram. Who is this chic old woman? I asked myself. Ah, Joan Didion. I kind of know her.
Except, I didn't, and there's nothing I hate worse than an intellectual phony. So I picked up Slouching Towards Bethlehem to remedy that.
The book is a collection of essays and magazine articles written during the 1960's. And when Didion acts like a journalist, reporting narratively driven facts in what we'd call longform writing today, I think she succeeds. She's a good writer, I'm not going to argue that.
But Didion gets bored with facts and stories and quickly the essays devolve into the tyranny of feelings. Practically, every other line has the intellectual depth of "How it felt to me" (134), or "because I'm talking about myself" (226). Maybe we should call her Mother Blogger. Or maybe just St. Joan, patron saint of millennials. It's hard enough being a part of that generation. I don't need to read her particular brand of it, fifty years ahead of its time.
And then there are the California references. She must mention that she is from California about two dozen times in this book, as if that's some kind of personal achievement, like winning the French medal in high school. "It's hard for people who have not lived in Los Angeles..." (220) - oh spare me your West Coast snobbery. My least favorite essay in the collection was about her experience growing up in Sacramento, though I recommend everyone should read it just to learn for themselves why it's not very interesting to write about your home county, no matter how unique a place you think it was. Trust me, it won't translate.
And I'm not alone in thinking this book is overrated. The Amazon reviews seem to fall into two categories: I think I was too old for this, and I think I was too young for this. That's quite a trick to alienate every age group, but it also says something about the book's self-indulgence. These essays were written by Joan, for Joan, and I think she got away with it at the time because she was an attractive woman; the intellectual's California party girl. Today, her work fits neatly into personal journalism, Instagram quotes, Lena Dunham, and every other Web 2.0 application (like blogging!), having of course spawned all of it. I'd have a lot more respect for St. Joan if I believed she meant to do that on purpose.