South and West: From a notebook by Joan Didion

The place is physically dark, dark like the negative of a photograph, dark like an X-ray: the atmosphere absorbs its own light but sucks it in until random objects glow with a morbid luminescence.
— Joan Didion, South and West

Pair this with S-Town podcast and you are sure to feel you've visited the deep South this week. This was a quick read that sheds light on the intimate details of the South, and how its lived reality juxtaposes with the West. More importantly, it once again gives readers insight into Joan Didion and the way she understands and takes note of the world around her. It is this that makes the book so magical.

Having only recently read The Year of Magical Thinking, I found myself marveling over the fact that there is no absent husband in this book, yet that he feels absent in far more ways than in Magical Thinking. Maybe, when someone is always there, we take their presence for granted. Or maybe, her tour of the South was somehow independent of him, despite the fact that he was there. The second possibility could be the case, because I got the sense that, working together from home as writers, they did learn how to carve out their own space - to navigate around one another.

In the trinket shop the woman and I each paid a dime to use the restroom. With another dime I got a cup of cold coffee from a machine and tried to stop being chilled. The woman bought her son a china potty with a little child disappearing down the drain and the inscription ‘Goodbye Sweet World’. I bought a cheap beach towel printed with a Confederate flag.
— Joan Didion, South and West

In this book, we navigate through the episodes of Didion's month-long tour of the South, particularly Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. I thought often about how the South of the 70s, depicted here, read so familiarly, not unlike the South J.D. Vance portrayed in Hillbilly Elegy. Amidst the poverty, there is richness - richness of ideals, of what it is to be from the South. Ingrained ideologies that are woven into the fabric of society - unlike the blankness perceived of cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco in the West. Which is more true and more real? Didion grapples with this, knowing, in the end, from which America she comes. 

In the South they are convinced that they have bloodied their place with history. In the West, we do not believe that anything we do can bloody the land, or change it, or touch it.
— Joan Didion, South and West

It does not surprise me that people are praising this work so highly given current times, when efforts to better understand and cope with one another's differences are so high  - to see the change we thought we had won, already vanished and once again the dream... but only the dream of some. How do we understand our dreams without understanding the dreams of others? How do we expand the frontiers of our own thinking? I would very much like to get in a car and drive through areas foreign to me in order to address this very question. Until then, I read works like these.