The pandemic lockdown has given us a lot of time to read. How do you decide which book to pick up next? In my case, it is often a serendipitous path. Here’s an example.
Andrew Bacevich, a frequent Commonweal contributor and personal favorite of mine, is a remarkably prolific writer. Still, I was surprised and impressed to come across the New York Times Book Review’s front-page review of American Conservatism: Reclaiming an Intellectual Tradition, a collection of essays Bacevich has somehow found time to edit for the Library of America. The reviewer was George F. Will, the longtime Washington Post columnist. It was a persnickety review, Will’s principal complaint being that Bacevich’s selections were so idiosyncratic “that ‘conservative’ comes close to being a classification that no longer classifies.” Perhaps.
Will ends his review praising Bacevich’s inclusion of an essay by the journalist, novelist, and screenwriter Joan Didion titled “The Women’s Movement.” Other reviewers have questioned Didion’s conservative credentials—she often writes for the New York Review of Books, and has been a strong critic of U.S. military adventurism. But Didion’s ideological sympathies, like those of her late husband John Gregory Dunne, are not easily “classified.” Noting that Didion once wrote for National Review, Will quotes some reactionary-sounding lines from her essay, including this one: “One oppressed class after another had seemed finally to miss the point. The have-nots, it turned out, aspired mainly to having.”
Strong stuff. I’ve read my share of Didion, but couldn’t remember reading “The Women’s Movement.” As luck would have it, I was able to find my yellowing copy of The White Album, her celebrated 1979 essay collection. I read it decades ago. The piece is, as Will described it, “a stiletto of an essay.” In some ways, it is not unlike the inflammatory things Norman Mailer wrote about the women’s movement in the 1970s. Didion’s principal complaint was that the movement’s rhetoric, especially its portrait of women as powerless victims, dismissed what was unique to women’s experience. Missing was “all one’s actual apprehension of what it is like to be a woman, the irreconcilable difference of it—that sense of living one’s deepest life underwater, that deep involvement with blood and birth and death—could now be declared invalid, unnecessary, one never felt it at all.” Whether one was a have or a have-not, that was a fearless thing to write in 1972.
Didion received the 2006 National Book Award for The Year of Magical Thinking, her memoir about the 2003 death of her husband and the illness of their daughter, Quintana. Dunne was also a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter, and wife and husband worked more or less side by side for the forty years of their marriage. Piled up next to my dog-eared copy of The White Album were several books by Dunne that I had never gotten around to reading, including Harp, a memoir of growing up Irish Catholic in West Hartford, Connecticut, in the 1940s.