One of America’s leading authors since the 1960s, Joan Didion has achieved a rare combination of critical acclaim and wide popularity. Known for her lucid prose style and incisive depictions of social unrest and psychological fragmentation, Didion's work has been associated with the 'New Journalism' movement. Her career began while she was still in college. After winning first place in the "Prix de Paris" essay contest sponsored by Vogue, she was awarded a job as a research assistant at the magazine. During her seven years at Vogue, Didion worked her way up from promotional copywriter to associate feature editor. While there, she wrote her first novel, 'Run, River' (1963), which examines the disintegration of a California family. Her first book of essays, 'Slouching Towards Bethlehem' (1968) brought her into the national spotlight. Today, she is the author of five novels, nine nonfiction books, screenplays, and many articles for magazines such as the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. Her book meditating on the death of her husband, 'The Year of Magical Thinking,' won the 2005 National Book Award and spent over 24 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Among her many awards, Didion received an honorary Doctor of Letters from Harvard University in 2009 and an honorary degree from Yale in 2011. In 2013, she was awarded a National Medal of Arts and Humanities by President Obama, and the PEN Center USA’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Didion arrived at UC Berkeley in the spring of 1953, where she joined a rapidly growing campus. It is not an exaggeration to say that Didion launched her career from Berkeley. She became heavily involved with her own writing and student publications, including the Daily Californian and the campus literary magazine, The Occident. In 1955, as a junior, she submitted a short story to Mademoiselle and won a coveted slot as one of ten summer guest-editors. In her final year at Berkeley, Didion won the Vogue essay contest that would catapult her into the world of New York City journalism. In 1956, she graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English.
As a high-profile writer, Didion has continued to remain a part of the Berkeley community. Didion, who once called her alma mater "California’s best idea of itself,” first returned to campus in 1975 to serve as a Regents’ Lecturer, which was a special month-long teaching appointment for professionals who worked in a field outside academia. This concluded with a public lecture, titled, “Why I Write.” The lecture became one of her most well-known works and was published in the New York Times in 1976. Later, as her reputation continued to grow, she was awarded 'Alumnus/a of the Year' by the Cal Alumni Association. Didion was also awarded the 2006 Hubert Howe Bancroft Library award. When describing what Berkeley's Bancroft library meant to her as an undergraduate, Didion may as well have been describing the entire University: "It represented a belief in the value of the past. It represented a belief in the value of the rare, the unique, the few."