On November 16, 2022, I wake up earlier than usual, clear my calendar (mostly), and wait for 11 a.m. to arrive—when the Joan Didion estate sale officially begins.
A few weeks prior, I drive alone to Hudson, New York, where a preview of Didion’s possessions up for auction is on display. I am nervous. Walking through the preview, eerily arranged across a few connected rooms in tight, homey vignettes—perhaps to emulate the writerly vibe of Didion’s NYC apartment—feels as though I have stumbled upon her other home tucked away in some secret dimension. It’s like that strange feeling when you dream about your childhood home but the whole thing is in black-and-white or the bathroom door leads to a strange castle tower.
As I come to the end of the preview, my throat begins to tighten and the tears come. I’m not prepared for how it would be, feeling so close to Didion herself and the life she’d had among all these seashells and chairs and silver cutlery. Barely embarrassed, I ask the gallery manager in attendance if I am the first person to cry in the exhibit. He replies with an emphatic shake of his head, asks if I’m okay, and gifts me a commemorative tote bag.
A few days before the auction, I text with friends about which items they’re watching—the monogrammed napkins, the Robert Rauschenberg, the writing desk (a white whale if ever there was one). I have flagged many things, including one or two lots of books from her personal collection. I have most of Didion’s writings and even a first edition of Play It as It Lays, which I treasure. But the thought of owning something she had once possessed and loved in her private life seems unfathomable—perhaps even an intrusion. And once the auction begins, and item after item fetches thousands more than anyone expects, reality begins to set in . . . and I give up the ghost.
But then, something strange happens. A lot of books comes up that is unlike the others. Instead of eight or twelve books, this lot includes only three, each devoted to an artist I love: David Hockney, Roy Lichtenstein, and Ed Ruscha. From the photo, they look a little worn and loved . . . by Didion herself. And so, when the auctioneer opens the lot for bidding, I hold my breath and click. As though time stands still, I wait for other bids to ripple in, if only one or two. But they don’t. And then, a few moments later, the books are mine.
It is one thing to love a writer and another to somehow have this mysterious access to them—their personal world, their home, their interior life. While I am awed by the chance to cherish three of Didion’s books, I also feel afraid. Like the books might actually contain her physical charge, keeping her alive in some way, as if one day she might come back for three of her treasured things . . . and her life as she’d left it. And it is now my job to keep them safe until she returns.
When I get the books home, I pull them out of their kraft-paper bag with care. The Lichtenstein book jacket is pleasantly tattered and yellowed. The Hockney book is slim and perfect, if a tiny bit patinated. When I hold the Ruscha book in my hands, something catches my eye and my heart nearly stops. The trim of an old newspaper clipping peeks out the top. Opening the book, I find two folded articles. The first, “A Driving Obsession” from the Sunday, October 17, 2004, edition of the Los Angeles Times, is an account of Ruscha’s then-obsession with what he calls “a little crater” in the middle of the road at Sepulveda and Palms Boulevard. The other, dated Sunday, March 6, 2005, is a New York Times profile of the mid-century architectural photographer Julius Schulman. Like Joan herself, both Ruscha and Schulman are legends of Southern California iconography. It is as though she, the unintentional matriarch of these fellow visionaries, was preserving what had been documented about the times they’d all shared, the things they’d seen and done, the place they’d lived and helped to create.
At least that’s what I tell myself. Or wonder. All I do know is that I am now the owner of three books “From the Library of Joan Didion.” And these two precious Sunday newspaper clippings, too. Which is more special to me, I’m not sure. All I know is that if/when Joan decides she wants her things back, they will be here waiting for her.
Christene Barberich is a writer, editor, and co-founder of Refinery29 who publishes the weekly newsletter A Tiny Apt.