Some time ago (not long after I turned twenty-five) I found myself buying books with a feverish hunger that most people reserve for recreational drugs or alcohol or inappropriate members of the opposite sex (or the same sex, for that matter). It became alarming only when I realized that I was spending nearly as much on books as I was on food, quite a feat considering that I often shop at Whole Foods, otherwise known as Whole Paycheck. Many of these books I read immediately, and they have been written about on these pages. Many were put away, hidden behind other, better-loved books on shelves or in dark corners or under the bed. It was not until I moved to my new home a few months ago and gained more much-needed shelf space, where my entire collection could be arranged by genre or by author or by publisher, exposed to all those who stood before them.
It is rather like an Easter egg hunt, a scavenger hunt for hidden treasure, finding books you didn't know you owned or that you vaguely remember buying but can't remember where or when or why. I found Vintage Didion shelved with the other Didions, between William Golding and Joseph Brodsky (there is logic to this, but I haven't found it yet), slid it out from between its neighbors. The writer stares back at me, a smile playing across her face, a scarf around her neck. A broad white stripe bearing the title of the book slices across the lower-middle section of the cover, separating her torso from her white-stockinged legs, ending in Mary-Janed feet. I have always considered Joan Didion to be one of the great beauties of her time, but it is her writing that lacerates my soul in a way no one else ever has.
The first chapter (one of a collection of essays gathered from across Didion's expansive career) of Vintage Didion is entitled Girl of the Golden West and it reminds me immediately of the Puccini opera La fanciulla del West, but is about Patricia Campbell Hearst, more commonly known as Patty Hearst. It is about how this California Golden Girl went from heiress and Berkeley college student to a member of the group that had kidnapped her. Didion's writing is, as always, clear and effortless and direct; she begins with a description of the domestic details, how Hearst wrapped herself in a blue robe and made chicken noodle soup from a can and tuna salad sandwiches for herself and her fiancé, and suddenly you are plunged into her abduction and all the mayhem that followed. And the more I read the more I feel clearly that it is Didion herself who is the Girl of the Golden West, this California girl whose writing is tied to her home state as though it was a part of her, bone deep and true to every word.