I discovered Joan Didion my senior year of high school, and to this day I remember standing in the stacks of the library, one hand on the metal shelf to steady myself, the other holding the book. I don’t know how long I stood there reading in that harsh fluorescent light–it could have been five minutes, it could have been five hours–but I know I was hooked by the precise, unmistakeable cadence of Didion’s sentences. I have remained hooked ever since.
I put off reading Blue Nights, Didion’s most recent book, only partially because of its subject matter (death, aging), which is, shall we say, not light. I waited because I knew that as soon as I had the book in my hand, I would devour it, and that’s exactly what happened.
Blue Nights begins with a discourse on what the French call l’heure bleue and the English call the “gloaming,” that eerily beautiful time between the end of day and the start of night. I first encountered the phrase in another book years ago, and have remained highly attuned to the color of the sky at that hour. In the final line of the opening chapter, Didion writes, “Blue nights are the opposite of the dying of the brightness, but they are also its warning.” When I read it I shivered.
For me, Didion is a writer who truly marries form and content. She has something to say, and she says it with unmistakeable style. Her prose is unflinching, honest, and, to this reader anyway, incomparably beautiful. When I talk about her style I always use the word “cadence,” because her sentences are truly musical. They are as lovely read aloud as they are on the page. Blue Nights will make you think, it will make you feel, and it may make you uncomfortable. But you will not be bored.
In our culture we don’t talk very much about death and aging. Which makes sense–it’s not easy subject matter. It’s not like Blue Nights is a rollicking good time. But it does tackle difficult subjects, and, in doing so, manages to create something beautiful, an accomplishment that deserves our respect, and our time.