‘The White Album’ by Joan Didion

This essay – the title in her collection – gets me every time, with its description of the end of the 60s, covering everything from hanging out with The Doors to the Manson Murders to Black Panthers and the swirling paranoia of both the writer and the times. The strategy is to cut it all up, present us with fragments, lists – everything from her psychiatric report to her list of things she packed to take on assignment. The end refuses to make a conclusion, her ambivalence is her weapon of choice and her sharp skills of observation still to me evoke something of the times, and in a weird way, the times we live in now. My favourite of all her essays – even the famous one about the toddler taking acid in Slouching Towards Bethlehem which in the end just has shock value – this essay really speaks to the way that form can be used to mirror content. And it starts with one of the most famous sentences in all of non-fiction: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

Collected in The White Album, Simon & Schuster, 1979. Currently available from Fourth Estate, 2017

‘Bureaucrats’ by Joan Didion

Staying in the car for a moment: the freeway experience, specifically the American freeway experience, and ultra-specifically the Los Angeles freeway experience, is often associated with three (non-American) Bs: Ballard, Baudrillard and Banham. Didion’s short take is one of the best, though, considering not only the “total surrender” and “narcosis” of Los Angeles freeway driving, but the difficulties in monitoring and regulating such a system. From inside the hushed, windowless Caltrans control room, she watches officials grappling with what should be a simple bureaucratic matter of infrastructure management, but are unable to comprehend its emotional dimension. The technology of the 20th century runs into the problem of the 21st.

Collected in The White Album, Simon & Schuster, 1979