The Secret Lives of Used Books (The White Album, by Joan Didion)

Jon Zobenica
3 min readMay 4, 2023
The White Album, by Joan Didion (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979)

Stuart B. Schimmel was a bibliophile of some renown — a longtime member of New York’s Grolier Club and a man who, in 1961, commissioned the engraver and typographer Reynolds Stone to make him a personalized bookplate. Stone produced many such in his day, including one for the Queen Mum and one for Hugh Trevor-Roper. He also created the coat of arms for Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, carved the gravestone of Benjamin Britten and memorials to (among others) Winston Churchill and T. S. Eliot, designed stamps for the Royal Mail and pound notes for the Bank of England, and provided illustrations for editions of Shakespeare, Rousseau, Melville, Iris Murdoch, and others. Now Stone’s work is affixed to the inside cover of my copy of The White Album, a copy that was originally Schimmel’s.

Of particular interest to Schimmel were literary forgeries. One amusing anecdote has him buying a forged Byron signature off a friend (who’d purchased it unwittingly) while promising to return it to the friend if it proved legitimate. In 2012, Bonhams auctioned off Schimmel’s impressive collection of forgeries, because high-quality fakes have a pedigree and legend all their own.

Joan Didion was not a fraud or a forger, but some did accuse her of a tendency to base her atmospherics on factors more imagined than experienced — a charge Tennessee Williams leveled with particular style:

I love her work, but I am aware that she is shrewd about her effects, her twists, her fillips, and her dry perceptions. While I feel that [Marguerite] Duras has actually walked through a few fires, and now writes from the perspective of a singed victim, Didion has, perhaps, witnessed a few burn victims and shudders at the vision, wonders how it might have affected her, how the clothes scented with Lanvin smelled when the petrol met the match. Duras has seen the carnage; Didion resides on a hill, in a beautiful home with a good soup on the stove and keens about the arrival of carnage: Cassandra with a good haircut and the phone number of people at Paramount . . . She walks toward us in a hair shirt by Chanel or Norell — or cadged from a studio sale — her eyes misty and her sentences solid. I love her.

The thing is, there’s reason to wonder if Tennessee Williams ever actually said that. The quotation comes from James Grissom’s Follies of God, in which Grissom reproduces — at generous length and in astounding detail — conversations he had with Williams thirtysome years earlier, in the final months of Williams’s life, conversations supposedly captured in furious notebook jottings and never recorded and preserved verbatim.

Perhaps Grissom has preternatural recall or the ability to write at the pace of lively commentary. Or perhaps — more human — he’s recreating in good faith and with as much accuracy as possible what he remembers Williams saying, and how, allowing himself to capture the gist of the conversations at the expense of some embellishment. Or perhaps he’s expressing his own thoughts and opinions and using the since deceased Williams as a fashionable mouthpiece.

If Grissom is perpetrating a kind of forgery, it’s of a quality that might have attracted Stuart B. Schimmel. I’m too Tennessee-impaired to say whether the passage above sounds like colloquial Williams, and late-life interviews with the playwright reveal a man who seemed impaired, period. But whoever said that about Didion (whether Williams or Grissom) had Didion’s number — and also, incidentally, her stylish imagination and way with just-so details.



Jon Zobenica

A former senior editor at The Atlantic, now living in California.