Books That Shaped Our Lives

Billie Jean Wiebe, Associate Professor of Communication and English

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

When I read the writing of Joan Didion I sense the sheer intelligence that informs the sentence. Her writing, particularly the nonfiction work, has captivated my attention for a number of years. And I don’t know when or why I first heard of her work or even the first time I read her. Perhaps it was her sharp essay on Highway 99 when I was compiling a show for FPU years ago, “The Great Central Valley: A Sense of Place.” In recent years I have read each new nonfiction work as it is published. I enjoy her writing about the ‘60’s and have assigned it in the Text and Performance course.

The Year of Magical Thinking is a beautiful, edgy account of death, loss, and change. It celebrates her relationship with John Gregory Dunn, husband, partner, writer, friend. Didion’s telling of the experience of John’s death, grief, and loss through the first year that he is no longer living is clear, passionate, and astute. The ways in which memory and time configure in long term relationships is presented in honest and idiosyncratic form.

Perhaps I select The Year of Magical Thinking because of my experience of loss and my resonance with poet Mary’s Oliver’s lines, “of course/loss is the great lesson.” I’m not quite sure how to live in the face of loss and the throes of change, what parts of life are sustaining or sustainable. And Didion’s narrative gives me a version of a life of connection. The work is compelling in the ways in which she crafts the narrative of this experience. And the intersection of experience, memory, and magical thinking in the framing of this story, each of our stories is instructive in understanding narrative knowing.

Relationships are what matter to me. This work is an intense expression of relationship.

I read more creative nonfiction these days than novels. Perhaps it is because I am still fascinated with identity and voice. I seek to know more about the power of story in the shaping of an individual and social, connected life. Memoir may capture my attention because I teach about story and the ways in which we each shape, frame, re-frame, and tell our own story. I assert how important it is for us to have a space in which to tell. And celebrate the space that opens when we listen. I do not necessarily recommend this book to everyone. There are times in one’s life when this book should not be read. But it is deeply meaningful to me as I navigate the territory of change and significant loss.