Let Me Tell You What I Mean (Hardcover)

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From one of our most iconic and influential writers: a timeless collection of mostly early pieces that reveal what would become Joan Didion's subjects, including the press, politics, California robber barons, women, and her own self-doubt.

These twelve pieces from 1968 to 2000, never before gathered together, offer an illuminating glimpse into the mind and process of a legendary figure. They showcase Joan Didion's incisive reporting, her empathetic gaze, and her role as "an articulate witness to the most stubborn and intractable truths of our time" (The New York Times Book Review).

Here, Didion touches on topics ranging from newspapers ("the problem is not so much whether one trusts the news as to whether one finds it"), to the fantasy of San Simeon, to not getting into Stanford. In "Why I Write," Didion ponders the act of writing: "I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means." From her admiration for Hemingway's sentences to her acknowledgment that Martha Stewart's story is one "that has historically encouraged women in this country, even as it has threatened men," these essays are acutely and brilliantly observed. Each piece is classic Didion: incisive, bemused, and stunningly prescient.

About the Author

JOAN DIDION is the author of five novels, ten books of nonfiction, and a play. Her book, The Year of Magical Thinking, won the National Book Award in 2005. She lives in New York.

HILTON ALS is the author of The Women and White Girls. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker and teaches at Columbia University.

Praise For…

"Didion’s remarkable, five decades-long career as a journalist, essayist, novelist, and screen writer has earned her a prominent place in the American literary canon, and the twelve early pieces collected here underscore her singularity. Her musings—whether contemplating “pretty” Nancy Reagan living out her “middle-class American woman’s daydream circa 1948” or the power of Ernest Hemingway’s pen—are all unmistakably Didionesque. There will never be another quite like her." —O Magazine

“In this new collection, the famed essayist demonstrates her longstanding mastery of the form. . . . In six decades of reporting with meticulous, nuanced notice, Didion has montaged in words myriad mortals, monuments, and movements. For this book, she moved her scrutinizing eye over Nancy Reagan, Tony Richardson, and Martha Stewart, William Randolph Hearst, Ernest Hemingway, and Gamblers Anonymous, to generate a fair-minded assessment. . . . Joan Didion merits a luminous legacy in American letters on par with Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Frederick Douglass, Emily Dickinson, Carson McCullers, and Eudora Welty.” --The Washington Independent Review of Books
“Over the past half-century, few authors have been as consistently impressive as Joan Didion, whose new book . . . amply demonstrates the author’s deceptively straightforward prose, simultaneously spare, elegant, and incisive. . . . Both a practical entry point for neophytes and a celebration for longtime fans, Let Me Tell You What I Mean is yet another winner from an essential writer.” --Kirkus Reviews (“Why Joan Didion Is Still Essential”)
“With the release of 12 never-before-collected essays in Let Me Tell You What I Mean, Joan Didion reminds readers that she's been right about everything all along. . . . It's that storied ability to seek out the ruthless truth in her disparate subjects that has become her signature. . . . In nearly every paragraph [. . .] are hallmarks of what Als calls "the Didion gaze" — the callbacks and repetitions, the clean snap of a telling detail, the almost pathological aversion to sentiment and cliché . . . [Didion is] a visionary who for more than half a century has shown us how to look through a glass darkly, and see anew.” --Entertainment Weekly (“The Center Will Still Hold: On the enduring legacy of Joan Didion”)
“[Didion’s essay] “Why I Write” constitutes a deeper drive than the parsing and ordering of observations; Didion’s why subsumes an existential inquiry into the compulsion to write anything at all, questioning the source of inspiration and asking who, or what, is ultimately in control. In the essay, Didion describes a particular “shimmer” that would form around images in her mind, creating a frame of sorts that pulled her in, impelled her to set down words as a means of telling the scene into being. . . . Reading Let Me Tell You What I Mean with an eye toward the shimmer, I believe it is possible to identify which pictures, crystalline and resonant, drew Didion closer and compelled her to string words together until the molecules manifested a new truth.” --Steffie Nelson, The Los Angeles Times
“In our own chaotic era, with the center again failing to hold, [these essays] offer an opportunity . . . to see afresh the writer who preceded the icon, the one who stood outside the culture, looking in. . . . The misuse of language is a frequent subject of Didion’s, especially the kind of useless verbiage that comes out of politicians’ mouths. . . . In “Last Words,” Didion’s stunning appreciation of Hemingway and the best essay in Let Me Tell You What I Mean, she reveals her approach to reporting, writing and, in fact, living.” --Jessica Ferri, The Los Angeles Times
“Didion is a chronicler of our world, a writer who dissolves shared delusions to present cold reality with style. . . . [This collection] spotlights moments in Didion’s progression as wordsmith and reporter alongside moments in culture.” --TIME
“Didion presents a dozen eclectic essays. . . . They are quintessential Didion. . . . Didion’s stories are personal, brilliant, and fascinating with her usual honesty.” --The Florida Times Union (“Essay collection presents Joan Didion at her best”)

"[A] dozen arresting, mind-tuning, previously uncollected essays in this exhilarating and instructive gathering spanning several decades . . . [Writing is] a voyage of discovery for Didion, conducted via meticulous observation and assiduous questioning of what she thinks and how her investigations make her feel. We see this at work in her responses to a reunion of the WWII 101st Airborne Division during the Vietnam War and a photo shoot with Nancy Reagan, and in profiles of Robert Mapplethorpe and Martha Stewart. Didion is both porous and steely, self-deprecating and in command. With a perceptive foreword by Hilton Als, who discerns the “uncanny” in Didion’s exacting work, this an illuminating and inspiring addition to the influential Didion canon." —Donna Seaman, Booklist

"Unquestionably, Joan Didion has been the voice of a generation . . . But she has also been the voice of those who’ve followed—you can hear her concision; her taste in the spare, shimmery detail; her lean, muscular sentences; and her dogged questioning of perceived truths . . . Didion is the model and exemplar, but she’s also just the best writer there is at melding the personal and the political, and bundling all the lit match-sticks of modern life into journalistic form."  —Christopher Bollen, Interview Magazine ("Ladies and Gentlemen, the Great Joan Didion")

"What you notice in Didion’s nonfiction is how her clarity becomes even sharper when disquiet rattles the cage of the quotidian . . . What Didion sought was naturalness of expression as controlled by a true understanding of one’s craft, the better to describe the ineffable, the uncanny in the everyday." —Hilton Als, from the foreword of Let Me Tell You What I Mean 

"A slender, highly satisfying collection . . . In an appreciative introduction, New Yorker theater critic Hilton Als praises Didion as “a carver of words in the granite of the specific.” Stylistic precision and the “energy and shimmer” of her prose are fully evident in this volume of previously uncollected pieces . . . All reveal the author’s shrewd, acerbic critical eye . . . Didion’s rejection from Stanford elicited an essay about college as consumption, and her skewering of consumption and artifice recur as themes—for example, in her observation of the ways women stage themselves for portrait photographs. Several particularly revealing essays focus on writing." Kirkus  
"This wide-ranging essay collection from Didion showcases her strengths as a short form writer . . . The pieces trace Didion’s development as an essayist and offer glimpses of late-20th-century social history . . . As always, the writing is captivating . . . Didion fans new and old will be delighted." —Publishers Weekly 

"This slim volume of uncollected nonfiction is full of small pleasures: Didion’s trademark anti-sentimentality, for one; her rhythmic prose; her ruthlessness (see her assessments of gambling addicts, hippies, Nancy Reagan); her wit. In the charming “Telling Stories” we also get self-effacement: a piece about why she never made the grade as a young short story writer...complete with rejection notices compiled by her agent." —Taylor Antrim, Vogue

"[These essays] provide a new view into the essayist’s mind at work. Didion ruminates on her most familiar subjects—politics, California and writing itself—in a voice that is refreshing, critical and ahead of its time."—TIME  

"These 12 pieces make an excellent introduction to Didion’s gimlet eye on American life. With a foreword by critic Hilton Als, Let Me Tell You What I Mean includes the essay “Why I Write,” profiles of such disparate figures as Robert Mapplethorpe and Nancy Reagan, and a consideration of Hearst Castle." —Bethanne Patrick, The Washington Post 
"Didion’s remarkable, five decades-long career as a journalist, essayist, novelist, and screen writer has earned her a prominent place in the American literary canon, and the twelve early pieces collected here underscore her singularity. Her musings—whether contemplating “pretty” Nancy Reagan living out her “middle-class American woman’s daydream circa 1948” or the power of Ernest Hemingway’s pen—are all unmistakably Didionesque. There will never be another quite like her." —O Magazine

“One of the most legendary figures in all of literature and journalism, Joan Didion's new collection deserves attention, in part, because it is from Joan Didion. But there's reason for additional excitement: These essays are gathered from the very beginning of her long career, which started back in the 1960s. Covering many seemingly disparate topics—WWII, Martha Stewart, the function of the press—this collection promises to reveal a side of Didion that's both familiar and strikingly fresh.” —Elle 
"In her new collection of essays, acclaimed author and National Book Award-winner Joan Didion explores the little corners of life as a young writer. Taken mostly from her early work, these pieces, which have never been collected before, are the delightful little nuggets of illumination Didion's fans have come to expect from the beloved writer." —Bustle 
"Prepare yourselves for 12 previously uncollected essays by Joan Didion. Drawn mostly from the earlier years of her more than five-decades-long career, these essays include interludes at a Gamblers Anonymous meeting and a reunion of World War II veterans in Las Vegas, as well as thoughts about meetings with the likes of Nancy Reagan, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Martha Stewart." —Fortune 
"You don’t need to tell us to read Joan Didion twice ... [This collection] is just what you need to start the year off right." —HelloGiggles 

"Never miss an opportunity to read this author of novels and nonfiction, who has the eye of a detective, the heart of a romantic and the soul of a skeptical truth-teller." —The Detroit Free Press

Product Details
ISBN: 9780593318485
ISBN-10: 059331848X
Publisher: Knopf
Publication Date: January 26th, 2021
Pages: 192