Joan Didion's Blank Notebooks, Eleanor Roosevelt's Andirons, and the Appeal of Tangible Artifacts

by Michael C. Dorf

Until a couple of weeks ago, I hadn't much ventured into the literature of grief, mostly because I wasn't sure I could handle it yet. But I knew what would be first on my list: Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. Didion was a wonderful writer whose ironic yet realistic sensibility I deeply appreciate, so I took the plunge. The book--which recounts the year after her husband (author John Gregory Dunne) died of a sudden heart attack--spoke to me.

The Year of Magical Thinking takes its title from a number of episodes, most centrally Didion's inability to give away her late husband's shoes because he would need his shoes if he were to come back to life. I know exactly how she felt. It's not that you believe your dead husband or wife will return. It's not even  denial as a stage of grief. It's more a kind of disorientation. You see the familiar objects and they bring to mind their departed owner, which reminds you they're gone, which surprises you, because you didn't think you had forgotten. Indeed, much of The Year of Magical Thinking involves Didion finding herself in familiar places and remembering long-ago incidents, noting how sometimes, but not often, these flights of fancy take her away for a few minutes from consciously thinking about her husband's absence or, in the memoir's other tragic plot line, her daughter's grave illness.

Yet if Didion's attachment to her late husband's shoes makes perfect sense, what are we to make of the value perfect strangers place on Didion's own belongings, including ephemera seemingly wholly lacking in sentimental value? This week her estate held an auction. As Danielle Cohen observes at The Cut:

Two sets of blank (blank!) notebooks went for $11,000 each. A stained pair of leather trash baskets were auctioned off for $5,500. One lucky (?) soul coughed up $7,000 for the collection of beach trash that once sat on Didion’s mantel.

Admittedly, the proceeds go to charity, and I suppose that the purchasers of these items could thus rationalize that they were doing good, but it remains a mystery why they wanted these items at all. Instead of paying $11,000 for a blank notebook once owned by Joan Didion, why not donate $10,985 to charity and buy a copy of The Year of Magical Thinking for $15. If you already have a copy (and what Didion fan willing to spend $11,000 for random memorabilia doesn't own all her books?), you can give this new copy as a gift.

What, then, is the attraction of Didion's ephemera? Some of it surely is about celebrity status. Why do people want autographs of famous people? The desire to memorialize a brush with fame--even if the token has nothing to do with the reason why the person in question is famous--seems to be common.

Shortly after Sherry and I moved from Cherry Hill, New Jersey to New York City in 1995, I ran into Ethel, who was my first-cousin-once-removed but was more of a great aunt, given our age difference. I was very fond of Ethel, who, having no children of her own, showered affection on my sister and me. A conversation more or less like what follows ensued:

Ethel: Does your apartment have a fireplace?

Me: No, none of the apartments in the building does.

Ethel: In that case, can I have the andirons back?

Me: The what?

Ethel: The andirons. The ones I gave you when you bought the house in Cherry Hill.

Me: Ohh! I'm sorry. I'd forgotten you gave us those. Because our new place didn't have a fireplace, we left the andirons, bellows, and poker behind for the new owners.

Ethel: But those were Eleanor Roosevelt's andirons! I bought them at the estate sale.

Now, to be clear, even after Ethel reminded me that she had gifted us the andirons, I had no recollection of her doing so--and I was nearly certain that she had never before mentioned that these were Eleanor Roosevelt's andirons. If I had known, I surely would have preserved them in the family. But really, what the hell? Why would anyone place any special value on Eleanor Roosevelt's andirons? It's not as though she was famous as a chimney sweep or legendary for the fires she built in Hyde Park or the White House.

Spending more money for Eleanor Roosevelt's andirons than one would pay for any otherwise comparable set of used andirons makes very little sense. And yet, this particular kind of magical thinking is widespread. Eleanor Roosevelt's andirons. Joan Didion's blank notebooks. Jon Voight's car. George Washington slept here. Even brief contact with our heroes turns ordinary utilitarian objects into something resembling religious relics, like the Shroud of Turin or the splinters alleged to be remnants of the True Cross that circulated in medieval times.

To be clear, I'm not judging. True, I lack the desire to possess otherwise ordinary objects simply in virtue of their having previously belonged to or come into contact with renowned persons--even people I admire or revere. But I understand the emotion as not that different from Didion's reluctance to part with her husband's shoes. If undistinguished inanimate objects can come to embody a psychological connection to a partner after their death, then such objects can--at least for others--establish such a connection with strangers whose life and work they admire.

The Talking Heads song Life During Wartime includes this lyric: "Burned all my notebooks, what good are notebooks? They won't help me survive." Maybe not, but there's more to life than surviving. I doubt that the purchasers of Joan Didion's blank notebooks will ever write anything in them, much less write anything Didion-esque. Even so, you take your inspiration and connection where you can find it. I'll give away most but not all of Sherry's clothes. I wish I'd kept those andirons, not because they belonged to Eleanor Roosevelt, but because they were a gift from Ethel.