Joan Didion's literary career has spanned more than half a century and has earned her justifiable acclaim. But long before she produced award-winning works like The Year of Magical Thinking, she was delivering articles to publications that included the Saturday Evening Post and the New York Times Magazine. Let Me Tell You What I Mean features 12 of those previously uncollected pieces that together foreshadow Didion's distinctive style and the considerable range of her interests.
The collection's entries blend reportage, profiles, personal essays and even a bit of literary criticism. Half were published in the turbulent year of 1968, and all but one appeared before the beginning of the 21st century. Despite its brevity, Let Me Tell You What I Mean hints at some of the subjects that would preoccupy Didion, including life in her native California and the craft of writing. Among the most appealing of Didion's personal essays are "On Being Unchosen by the College of One's Choice," the story of her rejection by Stanford University in 1952, and "Telling Stories," an account of her fitful effort to write short stories and its abrupt, early end.
"The peculiarity of being a writer is that the entire enterprise involves the mortal humiliation of seeing one's own words in print," Didion writes in "Last Words," her homage to Ernest Hemingway, a writer, she says, who "made the English language new." For all the discomfort she may feel reading her own work, she undoubtedly helped do something similar for the craft of literary journalism. These examples of her early work clearly foreshadow that. --Harvey Freedenberg, freelance reviewer