I’ve been conducting an experiment, of sorts. It’s very high-minded, slightly medical and far above my 24-year-old pay grade: Hoofing around New York City sans headphones.
Maybe you’re from around here, in which case, pick your jaw up off your desk because 1) Gross, get yourself together! You’re at work! and 2) As I’ve just discovered, it’s totally possible to commute without music blaring in each ear. The world doesn’t end, your brain doesn’t spontaneously combust and no one kills you / makes eye contact.
Maybe you aren’t from around here, in which case I should explain that New York is full of people shuffling, sprinting, dodging, ducking and on some occasions, shoving their way through subway terminals, sidewalk streets, elevator banks — you get it — and they all share the common accessories of headphones and music loud enough to drown out the hum of the city.
Usually I fall in line, turning on my “Morning Commute” Spotify playlist and staring at my shoes while trying not to touch any of the subway rails or fellow passengers (because, germs) each morning. But for the past few weeks, I’ve made a concerted effort to take in the scene — mainly, to study what people are reading.
And what have I noticed? (So nice of you to ask.)
Joan Didion. Everywhere. And let me say, I realize this is a city of millions upon millions and that millions of those millions are hipsters and all hipsters love Joan — but still, the past few weeks have borne witness to an uncanny Didion-presence.
The man across from me in my Alphabet City coffee shop, predictably wearing a fedora and cuffed chinos, was reading The White Album — a collection of Didion’s essays. I recently gave Matt (same reading buddy as discussed here) a copy of her essay, On Keeping a Notebook for his birthday. We’ve been chatting about it ever since. My Brooklyn-based friend posted an Instagram (picture: slanting light, silhouetted cityscape, almost certainly a Mayfair filter) captioned with a quote from my favorite of her writings, Goodbye to All That.
And, finally, I saw a curious man on my morning train, draped in a beautiful navy suit and (presumably) Italian leather loafers, reading Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York. This came out last October and is absolutely brilliant. Why? Because if anyone knows how to start a conversation, it’s Didion, and Goodbye to All That has been a talking point for writers, creatives and readers since it published in 1967.
Goodbye to All That is about Didion’s life, and her relationship with New York, and her ultimate decision that this place — a place that she once loved and probably always would love — was not meant for her.
But, somehow, in a piece all about herself, you feel it’s about you.
I wanted to move to New York since I knew what New York was. Since I understood skyscrapers and grandeur. Since I read Ginsberg. Since I heard Sinatra on my Grandma’s kitchen stereo. Since I wanted to be a writer, scribbling away in coffee shops, and work at a magazine.
This is about that; about me. I am sure it is also about you, wherever you are, whatever you do, because that is the magic of reading Joan Didion.
If you’ve gone this long without experiencing her, start with the links above. If you’re an enthusiast like me, which piece is your favorite?