Ty for the list request @bjnovak! Sorry it took so long, but I used it as an excuse to go back & reread some of my favorite Didion pieces, so I could write a truly informed list! I think the first book people should read is the White Album, bc it is my favorite. For a more a la carte approach, below is a list of 16 essays & books to get going
  1. First, some themes and motifs often found in Didion’s writing, so you know what you’re getting into: disenchantment, water, fire, Santa Ana winds, the artifice and hypocrisy of politics, the atomization of society, frontiers, drugs, hippies, morality, rattlesnakes. You get the point.
  2. Also, these are the places she tends to write about: Hollywood, Malibu, Brentwood, New York, Honolulu, Sacramento, Las Vegas, Washington
  3. Now, read this:
  4. On Self-Respect (1961) [Slouching Towards Bethlehem]
    “To have that sense of one’s intrinsic worth which constitutes self-respect is potentially to have everything: the ability to discriminate, to love and to remain indifferent.” This essay is a short rumination on the importance of self-respect as a discipline. It was published in Vogue, where Didion then worked.
  5. On Morality (1965) [Slouching Towards Bethlehem]
    The most killer last two lines, which I won’t spoil here.
  6. On Keeping a Notebook (1966) [Slouching Towards Bethlehem]
    “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be.” This is where that pretty famous line comes from. Read this essay for lines like that and for Didion’s take on the notebook as tool to remember and reconcile the different versions of ourselves.
  7. Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream (1966) [Slouching Towards Bethlehem]
    “…the family settled there, in a modest house on the kind of street where there are tricycles and revolving credit and dreams about bigger houses, better streets.” This is an essay about the American Dream—more specifically: the California dream. It reads partly like a Raymond Chandler story. It’s got lust and murder and beautiful, blistery imagery of the San Fernando Valley.
  8. Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1967) [Slouching Towards Bethlehem]
    This jewel of an essay is about Haight-Ashbury hippies in the 60s. It’s about the “atomization” of the country, about things not being what they seem, about the center not holding, as Yeats wrote. It’s about the kids who “drifted from city to torn city, sloughing off both the past and the future as snakes shed their skins, children who were never taught and would never now learn the games that had held the society together.”
  9. Goodbye to All That (1967) [Slouching Towards Bethlehem]
    Didion’s classic farewell to New York, in which she describes the sentiments anyone who has ever lived in New York and loved New York and maybe outgrown New York and then left New York feels about the place and the people we were there.
  10. The White Album (1968-1978) [The White Album]
    The White Album is “a kind of koan of the period,” as Didion describes something else in its pages. It’s perhaps my favorite Didion essay. In many ways, it picks up where Slouching Towards Bethlehem left off. It weaves together stories about Black Panthers, the Manson family, Jim Morrison, with her psychological evaluation and packing list (2 skirts; bourbon; Basis soap), all in her own effort to write around and then hopefully understand what the sixties were.
  11. Good Citizens (1968-1970) [The White Album]
    For the Nancy Reagan “Fake the nip” story. Trust me.
  12. Play it As it Lays (1970)
    Probably the most significant and lasting of Didion’s fiction. This is a book about actors, gamblers, psychosis, abortion, barbiturates, freeways, divorce, motherhood, grief, nothingness. I think I prefer her first novel, Run River, which has a clearer narrative, but this is a good fictionalization of so many of the themes Didion writes about in Slouching. “Never discuss. Cut. In that way I resemble the only man in Los Angeles County who does clean work.”
  13. On the Mall (1975) [The White Album]
    This is a short essay about her fascination with shopping centers and shopping center theory. Included here because I think it’s charming and because it shows, in a way, her obsessions, with structures or weather patterns usually (malls, dams, freeways, Santa Ana winds, brushfires) and the way she tells stories through details, parables of a changing culture through urban or suburban planning.
  14. Quiet Days in Malibu (1976-1978) [The White Album]
    Just a dreamy essay about life in Malibu in the 70s is all. With dark, Didion-like focuses of course: the near constant threats of fire and flood.
  15. Holy Water (1977) [The White Album]
    "The apparent ease of California life is an illusion, and those who believe the illusion real live here in only the most temporary way.” This essay is all about Didion’s love (maybe respect is a better word) for water and dams and the innovations and rather miraculous balance that keeps that illusion alive.
  16. In the Realm of the Fisher King (1989) [After Henry]
    I love so much how Didion writes about Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan and the people who surrounded them and whatever koolaid they were all drinking (surely out of teacups from the new china Nancy had ordered for the White House). This is such a fun read. Didion kills it—and seems to be enjoying herself.
  17. Insider Baseball (1988) [After Henry and Political Fictions]
    This is mostly about how campaigns and the political system as a whole is bullshit and Didion is very good at writing about bullshit.
  18. The West Wing of Oz​ (1988) [Political Fictions]
    This essay starts as an unpacking of the Mozote massacre (covered also in her wonderful book/extended essay: Salvador) then transforms into a skewering of Reagan and his ceremonial presidency. So it is at once tragic (the massacre) and infuriating (the cover-up, by the US government) and delightful (Didion’s pull no punches approach to Reagan, who she whittles down to a showman through and through, always looking for the best scene, the most compelling character and story)
  19. The Year of Magical Thinking (2005)
    I don’t have much to say about this memoir, which Didion wrote in the year after her husband’s death and during daughter Quintana’s illness, except to say that it is stunning and painful and gives one the sensation of floating in grief. Blue Nights, about Quintana’s death, is also stunning and heartbreaking. Both books reveal, though, what a truly unbreakable person Didion is. Even if she looks like she is held up by toothpick towers instead of bones.
  20. Bonus: Newt Gingrich, Superstar (1995) [Political Fictions]
    A hilarious, timeless look at what a batshit crazy, moon civilization-obsessed nerd Gingrich is and always has been.