Title: Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Author: Joan Didion
Narrator: Diane Keaton
Publication Year: 1968 (this audio version: 2012)
Pages: 238 (audio length: 6 hours 57 minutes)
Genre: Non-Fiction, Essays
Source: Audiobook version purchased from Audible.com
From the cover:
Universally acclaimed from the time it was first published in 1968, Slouching Towards Bethlehem has been admired for decades as a stylistic masterpiece. Academy Award-winning actress Diane Keaton (Annie Hall, The Family Stone) performs these classic essays, including the title piece, which will transport the listener back to a unique time and place: the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco during the neighborhood’s heyday as a countercultural center.
This is Joan Didion’s first work of nonfiction, offering an incisive look at the mood of 1960s America and providing an essential portrait of the Californian counterculture. She explores the influences of John Wayne and Howard Hughes, and offers ruminations on the nature of good and evil in a Death Valley motel room. Taking its title from W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”, the essays in Slouching Towards Bethlehem all reflect, in one way or another, that “the center cannot hold.”
Perhaps it’s because I’m from Canada, not America, or maybe it’s simply because of how long after the 60s I was born, but I’d never heard of this book before it was nominated for The Audies this year. Reading the description, I thought that I would enjoy the book, if only because I like learning about counterculture movements.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem assumed a certain amount of knowledge about California that I didn’t always have. I had to look up quite a few people or places in Wikipedia to be able to fully understand certain pieces, and I’m sure that I still missed some (or a lot of) references. I’m not sure that I’m really the audience for this collection; Didion has an almost palpable distaste for many of the people in her writing that put me off at times. It felt disrespectful and as though she didn’t care to move beyond her position as an outsider to really understand her subjects.
It’s possible, though, that this distaste wasn’t really in Didion’s words, but in the tone with which Keaton narrated the audiobook. I was thoroughly unimpressed with the narration of this book, and I’m not sure how it managed to be nominated for an Audie award. It was painfully clear throughout the seven hours of this audiobook that Keaton hadn’t rehearsed much, if at all. Her cadence was laboured and there were often pauses where there shouldn’t be any in normal speaking; sometimes, these pauses even made it hard to understand the sentence without re-thinking it. She also couldn’t manage to pronounce even some very basic words or place names. It felt, to me, very unprofessional, even though it’s advertised as part of “Audible’s A-List Collection, featuring the world’s most celebrated actors narrating distinguished works of literature that each star had a hand in selecting”. Honestly, if Keaton had a hand in selecting this book for her to narrate, then she either made a bad choice, or is simply a bad narrator for audiobooks generally.
I can see that Slouching Towards Bethlehem might be a good collection to read if you’re interested in an alternate narrative on California counterculture that isn’t all smiles-and-roses like some others. It wasn’t really my cup of tea, but maybe it’ll be yours.
Skip the audiobook, though.