1968: a biography

UnknownThis book came out a decade ago. I think I’ve owned it for that same length of time – I seem to recall getting it as a freebie at some readers’ night at a bookshop. I’d adored everything else by Kurlansky that I’d read, so it seemed like a good deal at the time. And then it just… got lost in the pile of books that I own and haven’t got around to reading. As happens all too often. Plus, I overlooked it because after all, 1968 is really quite recent, yeh? And modern history… well, it’s just politics. And there’s more interesting stuff to read than politics.

I’m not sure what made me pick it up last week. Possibly something I’d been talking about with someone, or I wanted to check something. Who knows; doesn’t matter. What matters is I read the introduction and I was hooked. Kurlansky talks about four significant factors that made 1968 stand out: the example of the civil rights movement in the US speaking to a generation that felt alienated and who despised a war being waged by a massive nation against a small one, and all of it occurring at a time when television was becoming a potent force. It’s not a unique year – I’m sure you could write this sort of insightful ‘biography’ for most years, of the twentieth century especially. But it really is a significant year.

(A little quibble about the cover: the Rolling Stones aren’t mentioned, so why put Mick with either Tommie Smith or John Carlos, who used the Black Power salute at the Mexico Games, and a soldier in Vietnam, and a rocket? It doesn’t really make sense. If they wanted to symbolise the student movement, then surely Abbie Hoffmann or a SDCC poster or similar would have done the trick. It irked me. )

From the point of view of a historian, Kurlansky is quite open about the impossibility of his being completely objective, and in fact rejects the idea of any historian doing so. He was born in 1948 and hence experienced a little bit of what he’s writing about, especially the anti-Vietnam stuff. This comes through in how he writes, but how much that’s a problem is going to depend on how hungry you are for that impossibly elusive objectivity – and how hard you find it to sift the presentation of information to find whatever you think is ‘true’. I think that the medium for conveying the message is worth it, and you just read with that in mind.

And this book is worth reading both for the style – which is intensely readable – and for the content. Kurlansky eschews too many footnotes (and in fact makes that endnotes, and without numbers in the text), so it reads less like a formal history and more as an engaging narrative. Yes the historian in me occasionally frowned at some of the things he says without appearing to back it up. That’s what you get for more conversational-style history… and actually that suggests what this book is like: it felt more like the book of the series. I can easily imagine each of the chapters here being turned into an episode of television.

The absorbing nature of the narrative is aided by the astonishing story that’s being told. Bare bones: Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F Kennedy are both killed in this year; there are student riots/protests/movements all over the US and the birth/growth of significant student movements, as well as in France, Germany, Mexico, Poland and Czechoslovakia, sometimes accompanied by workers’ movements; the Olympic Games in Mexico; attempt at revolution in Czechoslovakia that’s put down by Soviet tanks; civil war in Nigeria; unrest in Israel; the Tet Offensive in Vietnam; Nixon winning the US election; Apollo 8; race issues, gender issues, political issues… . Yeh. It was a big year.

Kurlansky does a wonderful job of putting actions in different places in perspective – connecting them to one another. This is particularly true of the discussion around the student movement, which is really the heart of the book. And there’s something to be warned about: although there is quite a good discussion (IMO) of the Polish and Czech experience, especially, this is still at heart an American book. The Nigeria/Biafra ‘conflict’ is dealt with seriously and soberly, but it doesn’t get nearly as much air time as the attempts at student sit-ins around American universities. Is that a problem? Depends on what you’re wanting out of the book. And it depends on what you think actually made more of an impact around the world at the time, and since then. The by-line is “The year that rocked the world.” Did American students flagrantly defying authorities, and students being beaten by police, ‘rock the world’ more than a million people dying in Biafra? … unfortunately, possibly yes, for several reasons – not least of which is the one that Kurlansky himself spends quite some time discussing: television. There were cameras rolling when students got beaten in the streets of Chicago and New York. Not so much in Nigeria. Plus, the reality is that America had and continues to have more of an impact on world attitudes and trends that Nigeria does – for good or ill, in terms of ascertaining impact it doesn’t matter. My point is more that if you want a book that balances every country’s experience equally, this is not for you. It’s more than the history of one nation but less than a complete history of the world. So check your expectations first.

This is a really fabulous book for bringing out the important issues and the people of this one year. He sets the events and the people into context – casually dropping in Yasir Arafat and Bill Clinton, among others, for future connections, as well as giving background on Martin Luther King and the development of Palestinian identity and the Nigerian conflict and issues in Czechoslovakia. It’s not quite a history of the entire decade but it’s more than just a history of a year.

I love that this book ends with optimism. 1968 itself is such a torrid confusion of hope and despair that going from “racism, poverty, the wars in Vietnam, the Middle East, and Biafra” to the picture of our little blue and white and green marble, as seen from Apollo 8 going around the moon, seems peculiarly appropriate. And then to conclude with Dante – “Through a round aperture I saw appear / Some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears, / Where we came forth, and once more saw the stars.”

This book can be found on Fishpond. 

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