The Best Joan Didion Books Of All Time

Sonia Akavan
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It’s impossible to overstate the significance of Joan Didion’s body of work. She is one of only a few writers who can be considered ‘canonical,’ a thinker and a writer who, time and again, speaks to the big questions in life and literature.

Didion writes about the politics of our personal lives and the intimacies of our daily existence with a brutal honesty that cuts through all of the bullshit, both in literature and in our culture at large.

The result is some of the brightest, most incisive, and important writings in the history of American letters.

This is a woman who is incapable of writing anything that’s vulgar, or sexist, or reactionary, or even unappealing (except maybe some of her lengthy New Yorker articles about California that, while still brilliant, were written by a Didion who had become a bit exhausted by the end of the 60s).

She is well aware of how she is perceived in the literary world, and she has no problem calling out anyone who’s wrong in her essays and interviews — and there’s even some witty and biting sharpness directed at her peers.

NameCategoryProduct
Fixed Ideas: America Since 9.11Best OverallFixed Ideas: America Since 9.11
The White Album: EssaysBudget PickThe White Album: Essays
We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live( Collected Nonfiction)[WE TELL OURSELVES STORIES IN O][Hardcover]Upgrade PickWe Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live( Collected Nonfiction)[WE TELL OURSELVES STORIES IN O][Hardcover]

1. Fixed Ideas: America Since 9.11

Our rating: 9 / 10

Fixed Ideas: America Since 9.11

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Pros:

  • Insightful take on terrorism and its impact on the US.
  • Memoirs about a woman refugee.
  • Compares the US and Osama bin Laden.
  • Brilliant writing.
  • Joan Didion is a fantastic American novelist and book writer.

Cons:

  • Tends to be a little dense.
  • Not for everyone.

2. The White Album: Essays

Our rating: 7 / 10

The White Album: Essays

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One of the most famous essays was written by Joan Didion in 1979 for The New York Review of Books. It describes the aftermath of the death of her husband and the actual experience of grief. Her insights about loss are stunning.

She talks of the moments when she suddenly realized she no longer had her husband. At one point, she says she saw her husband's shoes in the closet at a friend's house, and realized they were another woman's shoes.

3. Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays

Our rating: 7 / 10

Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays

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Pros:

  • A candid look at life in America during the mid-20th century
  • Features an introduction on Didion and the essay collection
  • Shows Didion's characteristic wit and style

Cons:

  • Not for readers that like things about politics or history
  • The short length and close proximity of the essays can be hard to keep up with

Slouching Towards Bethlehem contains 13 essays and is considered a collection of Joan Didion's best essays. It also includes her essay "The White Album" which was originally part of her 1979 best-selling book of the same name.

Didion's essays in this book cover a number of different topics. They range from life in California to the seemingly disappearing American dream. Her writing is beautifully put together. She does a terrific job of showing the reader the human side of stories through her writing.

One of the things I enjoy about Slouching Towards Bethlehem is that you can read it in a single sitting. It may not be the longest book out there, but it is one of the best.

4. The Year of Magical Thinking

Our rating: 7 / 10

The Year of Magical Thinking

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Pros:

  • Funny, wise, and honest
  • Great discussions About grief and mourning
  • Well organised and well written
  • Highly accessible to the casual reader
  • Full of interesting details about Didion and Dunne’s extraordinary lives
  • Helped make Didion so popular
  • Reinforces the idea that you shouldn’t try to outrun your grief
  • Emphasises the importance of Didion’s daughter Quintana Roo, who died suddenly at the age of 39
  • Didion is able to make you feel empathy for her
  • Beautifully constructed book

Cons:

  • Might not be for everyone as Didion’s stories are definitely unique
  • After the events of the year, Didion had to remain vigilant about her health
  • While Didion’s friends and family may have found the book to be very true to her life, some readers found her portrayal to be one-sided and as if she was being defensive

Joan Didion is a brilliant and famous author most known for her brilliantly written work The White Album. Her real life book The Year of Magical Thinking describes her experiences and feelings after the unexpected death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne.

5. South and West: From a Notebook

Our rating: 6 / 10

South and West: From a Notebook

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Pros:

  • Well written
  • Highly personal
  • Not just a memoir
  • Filled with profound life lessons
  • Appreciate Joan Didion much better after reading
  • Takes you to the heart of 1970s California
  • A welcome look at Didion's feminism
  • The best Didion book, by far
  • A must for any fan
  • Compulsively readable

Cons:

  • It's a bummer that it's out of print
  • Could have been shorter
  • High-class writing at its best

The first nonfiction book by Joan Didion, SOUTH AND WEST is a partly written memoir based on Didion's travels through newly minted American states, including Texas, Florida, and Georgia.

The author also wrote the highly successful book THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING, and SOUTH AND WEST has many of the same ingredients that one finds in that brilliant book. One can see how Didion's writing got better, deeper, and stronger as she wrote SOUTH AND WEST. The great difference between the two books is that SOUTH AND WEST was much more personal.

6. We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live( Collected Nonfiction)[WE TELL OURSELVES STORIES IN O][Hardcover]

Our rating: 6 / 10

We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live( Collected Nonfiction)[WE TELL OURSELVES STORIES IN O][Hardcover]

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Pros:

  • Stunning imagery
  • Heartbreaking
  • Underrated and underread
  • Timely

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” This simple statement is the crux of this novel. The book tells a story of an unnamed Central American country in the throes of an unspecified civil war.

It revolves around a family, the father and his three children. The book takes the time to explore the narratives each of the children have created in order to live, to survive the war.

The book is absolutely stunning in every aspect, from the imagery of the child’s stories to the sincerity of the narrators. There are scenes that take your breath away.

7. Blue Nights

Our rating: 6 / 10

Blue Nights

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Pros:

  • Heartbreaking but beautiful
  • Artfully written
  • Paints beautiful picture of the author's loss

"Blue Nights" is the account of the death and now, the death of her husband. Didion recounts the fall of her relationship, the death of her husband, and more, beautifully weaving together the grief, the memory, the tragedy.

8. After Henry

Our rating: 6 / 10

After Henry

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Pros:

  • Detailed in its characters
  • Theme of loss
  • Showcases Didion’s wonderful writing style

Cons:

  • The ending caused some readers to dislike it
  • Considered to be a depressing read

This novel from written by the legend herself, Joan Didion, is a literary gem. It was in this novel that Didion truly proved that she knows how to write with exceptional wit and beauty. She tells the story of a woman who has survived a heart attack and watches her world crumble before her eyes. In the aftermath, the woman discovers that she feels like she never really had a marriage and that the life that she thought she had was a farce.

Many readers absolutely adored this novel and the beautiful writing style of Joan Didion. However, a fair amount of readers did not enjoy the way that the novel ended up, and felt that the story ended up lacking depth.

9. Play It As It Lays: A Novel

Our rating: 6 / 10

Play It As It Lays: A Novel

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Usually, critics won’t include their own books on their book length lists of books that are good to read. That is, under normal circumstances. Joan Didion is a strange bird.

She’s famous for her intensely personal essays that reflect thoughtfully and organically on a wide range of topics each as unique as the one before it. One of them is Play It As It Lays, a novel that forces the reader to bear witness to the spiral of emptiness that Didion’s nameless protagonist falls into. At the beginning of the book she’s a young woman who marries a former football player, and slowly falls into despair as she fills the void between her high-stake life and unfulfilling marriage with barbiturates and anxiety.

10. Political Fictions

Our rating: 6 / 10

Political Fictions

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The title story of this collection of essays is a kind of fiction; it is based upon a magazine article, “Buyer Beware,” which tells the story of Didion’s first reaction to the Gulf War.

On the last page of the story, Didion muses about the future of American politics in relation to the attack on Iraq. After all, the US may not be directly involved in this particular battle, but it is involved in others. Her conclusion here is telling. “War is hard to talk about, because its effects are out of proportion to the causes that occasioned them… War is like love; it always finds a way.”

In the piece titled “The White Album,” Didion has a field day examining the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. She’s not impressed, but then again, she never really has been. (For more on that period, see her first book, Run River.)

11. Where I Was From

Our rating: 6 / 10

Where I Was From

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Pros:

  • Informative and nicely written
  • Effective use of metaphor language
  • Lively and easy to read
  • Accepts responsibility for her family

Cons:

  • A little bit long in some sections
  • Has a very depressing tone in some sections
  • Lacks cohesive structure in the book

Okay, so Where I Was From isn’t really Joan Didion’s most famous book, but it’s very good nonetheless. It’s a bit unusual among Joan Didion’s books in that it’s not a collection of essays, but a family history in essay form. In that respect, it’s like a book test: if you really want to get a sense of what Joan Didion’s work is like, then this is the book that will best give you a sense of her authorial voice and writing style.

It’s about California and connects some of her personal family history with the history of the state of California, as well as a bit of its own history. If you want to understand what Joan Didion is about, then there is no better place to start than this book, which we highly recommend.

12. Run River

Our rating: 6 / 10

Run River

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Pros:

  • Convey Border Hopes
  • Short, Poignant Sentences
  • Familial Connections
  • Minor Characters
  • Unbleak

Cons:

  • Reminds you of the powers of of memory
  • Misses the open road
  • Carrie's voice almost too intense

Run River evolved out of a year-long account of a family in crisis. This event caused the Didion to confront her own sense of parenthood and belonging as she passed her home of Sacramento and realized that her childhood home was soon to be sold and a new owner was going to take over and start a new family with a new set of norms.

Daily routines and family habits become a subject matter for her, and Hadion also delves into her own childhood to study the relationship between her family members in her effort to understand the past.

Verdict: Run River is a beautifully written novel of a family trying to find the love they once had for one another. The novel also examines the duties and benefits of being a parent and the duties and benefits that come with being part of a family. As always, Didion's prose is a delight to read.

13. A Book of Common Prayer

Our rating: 5 / 10

A Book of Common Prayer

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Pros:

  • New Orleans setting
  • Historical fiction
  • Complex characters
  • Catholic themes
  • New Orleans

Cons:

  • Nail biter
  • Has some swear words
  • May be a bit campy for some

In A Book of Common Prayer, Joan Didion masterfully weaves a plot and captures a sense of place in this novel.

It is a book of dual stories. We have a narrator. He goes through a crisis and goes to New Orleans to hide. He embarks on a Catholic Quest. His wife is hospitalized for mental health issues. It is both a character study and a New Orleans love letter.

I truly enjoyed this book. It has a very slow start, but it is for a good reason. It is incredibly well-written. It also has some controversial aspects. It is quite graphic. If you like book that are gritty, you will like this. Not for the faint of heart.

14. Salvador

Our rating: 5 / 10

Salvador

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Pros:

  • Beautiful illustrations
  • Infant/toddler friendly
  • Easy to read
  • Baby-friendly
  • Large letters
  • Sturdy fabric
  • Accepts car seat strap
  • Comes in different sizes/styles
  • Easy to clean
  • Accepts pacifier clips

Cons:

  • Might be considered a bit pricey
  • Straps have been reported to be difficult to adjust
  • Tends to be a bit bulky for carrying compared to other carriers

The Beco 8 comes in a variety of different styles and sizes depending on how old your child is. It has a variety of pockets to hold your keys, cell phone, etc. It also has a zippered pocket on the top of the bag that is great for storing toys.

15. Democracy

Our rating: 5 / 10

Democracy

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Pros:

  • Good combination of fiction and non-fiction
  • Didion’s journalistic skills come together brilliantly
  • Superbly written and thoroughly researched
  • A look at the US political system in the 21st century

This is the real deal, a hugely ambitious effort by one of the best living writers that examines…gasp…politics. Joan Didion has won the Pulitzer and has been around the block with all that is essential for high-class journalistic writing. She cleverly pulls off the effort to write a non-fiction novel with Democracy.

There is no beating around the bush here. Didion took an interest in her Nation magazine assignment and chucked herself at the US political system. The approach was almost as if she were a detective who doggedly researched and revealed truths that had before not been written.

16. Miami

Our rating: 5 / 10

Miami

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Whatever Joan Didion touches, turns to gold. Her unique writing style, that also encompasses some personal experiences, thickens the plot.

She mostly looks at the grey, not the black and white. Her view of life comes off as poetically observant.

She is able to sprinkle her sentences with finely honed details while still bringing in the big picture. She is able to tell a story while shedding light on the human condition.

17. The Last Thing He Wanted

Our rating: 5 / 10

The Last Thing He Wanted

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Pros:

  • Tom Cruise stars as “Max” in this political thriller
  • An extreme rarity: a Didion novel with a protagonist who is a male (it also makes him more rounded as a character, IMO)
  • Film adaptation contains a RIDICULOUS amount of swearing, which is both realistic and hilarious
  • I’m a big fan of Didion, so this one of the best books by Joan Didion was easy to pick
  • Rare for Didion in that she moves away from her strength of California settings – the novel is set in South America, much to the dismay of her detractors

The Last Thing He Wanted is an amazing fiction novel written by Joan Didion. Set in Florida in the late 1970s, it involves the Cuban American Dixie mafia and a hapless CIA agent who’s sent to the Caribbean to kidnap a Soviet defector. The book is written in the form of a “novel,” with a lot of unexpected plot points and a wildly engaging scene. It paints a grim picture of the Cold War and America’s covert operations in that region.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What Joan Didion book should I read?

Joan Didion established herself as an author in the sixties with her best selling novel, “Play It as It Lays.” The novel’s main character is Maria, a Hollywood actress who loses her sense of hope after the death of her husband Bruce.

Didion’s next successful book was also a realistic novel about the lives of married couples. “A Book of Common Prayer” tells the story of Griffin, a World War II veteran, and his family, who move to Africa in the late sixties. The novel addresses their lives raising a family in a post-colonial Africa.

What is Joan Didion known for?

Joan Didion has published seven novels, eight works of nonfiction, two travel books, one children’s book, and a collection of short stories.

Her first novel, Run, River, won the National Book Award in 1963 when she was just 27 years old—the youngest writer to ever win the prize at that time. All her novels have been bestsellers, excepting a children’s book. Her second novel, Play It As It Lays, was a National Book Award finalist in 1972 and her only non-fiction book, The White Album, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Despite her success as an author, she is probably more well-known for her six books of non-fiction. All six books have been New York Times bestsellers and five of them have been optioned for film or TV.

What book does Joe give Ellie?

We don't know! As a result, we asked the Reddit community for their recommendations. One of the most popular answers was Didion's 2014 collection of essays, The Year of Magical Thinking. Some also recommend A Year of Magical Thinking, which is a memoir of the year following Didion's husband's death and Didion's own life-threatening bout with pneumonia. Didion's novel Play It As It Lays is another choice.

There are too many great books by Joan Didion to only recommend one. Here is a list with descriptions of each one:

Who is Joan Didion's daughter?

Didion's daughter Quintana Roo Dunne was born in 1968 and was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in adulthood. She died of pneumonia associated with leukemia in 2005 at the age of 39. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion wrote about her daughter's experience with cancer and ultimate death. After Quintana's death, Didion wrote Blue Nights, a reflection on what she saw as the incomplete mourning process.

Conclusion

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005) was enough to make me break their diet. After reading that book, I definitely gained 5 pounds, at least temporarily. I was totally addicted. Should I ever loose weight I know at least where to get it from.

Our Recommendation

NameCategoryProduct
Fixed Ideas: America Since 9.11Best OverallFixed Ideas: America Since 9.11
The White Album: EssaysBudget PickThe White Album: Essays
We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live( Collected Nonfiction)[WE TELL OURSELVES STORIES IN O][Hardcover]Upgrade PickWe Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live( Collected Nonfiction)[WE TELL OURSELVES STORIES IN O][Hardcover]