I wanted to read Joan Didion’s Blue Nights so badly that I let it set on the bookshelf in the living room for two years. It seemed too special to just pick up and read. I needed the right mood, the perfect road trip, a weekend with no interruptions, an afternoon at a spa. As it turned out, I was looking for a time so special, that it didn’t exist, and now I’m reading it because two years has gone by and I needed a book to read, and there it still was.
It, so far, appears to be as special, as pretty, as profound as I imagined it would be. It also turns out that reading it at the kitchen table, looking out the kitchen window every now and again between pages, was a good enough place to be reading it. As I am reading it, I want to read the words out loud, so I hear what they sound like when spoken, not just imagined in my mind. It’s as close to poetry as a work of nonfiction can be.
I won’t be recommending it to friends, though. I made that mistake in the past. Blue Nights, you see, like its predecessor The Year of Magical Thinking, falls into a special category. The subject matters of these books are horrifying in the worst way—they focus on tragedy and sadness of the most routine kind, the kind that can happen to anybody on a regular, nondescript, ordinary day. They’re not like watching the news and seeing that somebody died racing cars or trying to climb Mt. Everest—the activities that captivate us and make us feel sad, but confident, when they end badly.
Those daring activities are not like sitting down to dinner and having a spouse suffer a fatal coronary (The Year of Magical Thinking) or losing a daughter to illness (Blue Nights): events terrifyingly routine enough that they wouldn’t be on the news. Didion’s writing is so simple and perfect, though, that it has the opposite effect on me. It comforts me to read that when common tragedy impacts life, there is a way to move forward. Somebody lived through these things and made something beautiful out of it, even if it was only a short book.
I’ve reconciled myself to the notion that not everybody finds comfort in this category of book. One book that my mind goes back to over and over is The Disappearance by Genevieve Jurgensen. I can’t name five books that I thought about more through the years more than this one. Jurgensen loses her two young daughters in a car crash. She’s a beautiful thinker and a beautiful writer, and wrote her account a dozen years after their passing. The liner notes say of her girls that “you will have a sense of what it must be like for Jurgensen to miss them every hour, every night, every day.” As I read that sentence, I understand why many readers would not want to know what it “must be like” to “miss them every hour, every night, every day.” Who would want to know that feeling, even if only as a book’s bystander? I tried to read The Emperor of All Maladies once. Its full title further explains it as a biography of cancer, and it’s won the Pulitzer Prize. In fact, it is written in as riveting a way as one can imagine the topic could be. In the pages that I read, the author was so successful in captivating my thinking, that I thought for weeks I was developing strange coughs, new lumps, weird pains, unexplained symptoms. While beautifully written in its own way, and no doubt inspiring for many people, the illness biography didn’t work that way for me.
The pain-of- loss genre does work for me, though. I call it a genre because on the back cover of The Disappearance, a quote from an article in The Observer, calls it such: “It will surely join C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed as a classic of the genre.” I tried recommending all of these books at one time or another to readers I assumed had similar tastes, sensibilities. Sometimes the books were politely described as “depressing,” once the book was abruptly returned to me with the reader angrily asking me, “Why did you think I would want to read about that?”
For that reason, I will not recommend the pretty, profound, poetic Blue Nights, the book that sat on my bookshelf, too sacred to pick