After she was done reading from her new book, she said she would take questions. There was silence and everyone looked around nervously, wondering who was going to break the silence. There were things I wanted to ask but I didn't have words for these questions and any questions I could think of seemed either too banal or too much for the setting, for the person the questions would be directed to. I was really nervous. This was one of my idols and I couldn't ask her just anything. Worse, I could not ask her something and have her give a look where I knew she was bored by the question. I wouldn't be able to continue living. I was silent and so too was the rest of the audience. We all adored her too much clearly. The moderator broke the ice and asked a question and soon other people followed, seeing that she wouldn't bite, that she is a sweet, old lady who fingers all these memories in her answers.
I had seen Joan Didion read once before, when she was promoting The Year of Magical Thinking, and that experience was beautiful even though I was in the back of a huge overflow crowd at Barnes and Noble's. This time, I was lucky enough to see her read at Paula Cooper Gallery, a much smaller event, and was even more lucky to score a seat in the second row. I was ten or so feet from this writer I adore for a good hour. She is small and spectral, a little old lady, delicate looking.
After the reading, I got in line to get my copy of Blue Nights signed. Her hands briefly touched my book as she signed her name. There were a million things I wanted to say to this woman. There was no way I could concisely put all of these feelings into this brief moment granted by her signing my book. When she was done signing my book, she looked up at me. For a brief instant, I got to look Joan Didion in the eyes and I said, "Thank you." I said it in the most sincere way. Those two words were packed with so much gratitude.
It was some years ago when I was working at The Strand when I first read her. The first book I read was The White Album, a beautiful old hardcover edition that I can still clearly picture the red and blue cover fonts of. It was a magical book, a book of spells. It really showed me what could be done with an economy of prose, how moods could be evoked with pauses and clipped sentences. It showed me a beautiful rhythm which I often find myself poorly imitating, often unconscious of the fact, sometimes conscious of it. They are short little essays, each of which packs a huge punch, paints broad pictures of this country and what it means to live. I sold the book during one of the many times when I was broke and sold off big piles of books I had acquired from working at that store. I need to reacquire it, an old hardcover copy though. Slouching Towards Bethlehem was read shortly thereafter, and I soon relisted my favorite books on Friendster. These two will always be on any favorite book list of mine.
I couldn't explain how much this woman means to me, but I am sure you have people like that in your life, and imagine how you would feel if you got to see them up close in person, the butterflies and the joy and the nervousness all bouncing around inside you. And that's how I felt last night - absolutely giddy and starstruck and full of dreams and memories and heartache.
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