Book Review: We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live – The Collected Nonfiction of Joan Didion (Alfred A. Knopf Publishers, 2006)

“What could be more arrogant than to claim the primacy of personal conscience? . . . Because when we start deceiving ourselves into thinking not that we want something or need something, not that it is a pragmatic necessity for us to have it, but that it is a moral imperative that we have it, then we join the fashionable madmen, and then is when the thin whine of hysteria is heard in the land, and then is when we are in bad trouble. And I suspect that we are already there.”                       

 from “On Morality,” 1965

I try not to judge a book by it’s cover, but it’s difficult in cases like this, especially the cover of this one, where the woman in the Stingray is looking out at me from the past, drawing me in and through the process of wrestling with the silently implied question

I do, also, have a habit of judging books by their weight. I have this superstitious belief that the knowledge between the covers of a book is directly proportional to it’s mass. And this book is heavy. But the convenient size of this book makes it perfectly comfortable to tuck under one’s arm to carry wherever you go, and this book should be carried often and far, because it’s content is, well, the kind of stuff that will tend to bend your head simultaneously in several interesting directions.

“Although to be driven back upon oneself is an uneasy affair at best, rather like trying to cross a border with borrowed credentials, it seems to me now the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect. Most of our platitudes notwithstanding, self-deception remains the one condition necessary to the beginnings of real self-respect . . .To assign unanswered letters their proper weight, to free ourselves from the expectations of others, to give us back to ourselves – there lies the great, singular power of self-respect. Without it, one eventually discovers the final turn of the screw: one runs away to find oneself, and finds no one at home.” 

from “On Self-Respect” 1961

And it’s times like these, when the going has gotten way past weird, when the grey skies of winter refuse to give way to the blue skies of spring and the very winds that breathe life into the planet are beginning to protest the vanity of the human species by withholding their currents, and the compass cards are spinning in their boxes like mad dervishes under the influence of mad, dull-eyed salesmen and professional hucksters, that what you need is a little sanity and wisdom.

And Didion’s words provide the kind of cold hard sanity and sense that keep me awake at night, reading over and over these passages that give me serious pause and at the same time put all the bad craziness  into a comprehensive perspective. From the silences between her carefully parsed and laid out thoughts comes an idea that life in the midst of  this vast global conspiracy ought, and could possibly be at least different, if not exactly better.



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