Monday, April 26, 2010

Year of 25 Books: #7 - 1959: The Year Everything Changed

Whenever I read a book that is devoted to a single year, it is so frequently accompanied by the implication that no other year could possibly match it in terms of change that I really don't believe it any longer. There is, in fact a book written about 1969 that uses the exact same tag line as Fred Kaplan's intriguing 1959: The Year Everything Changed.

I mock the drama of implying that the history of the world hinged on a single year - really, it's never that simple. But 1959 was a unique year, one that I really didn't know all that much about until I read this book. In truth, while I am fascinated by later 20th century history, the 50s don't interest me much. I'd much rather read about the turbulent 60s or the stagnant 70s. I was a bit suspect of this book, figuring that it might start out with a bang and then peter out quickly or worse, be full of facts and figures that I couldn't care less about.

What I got instead was a interesting run through some of the highlights of the year. While many books of this ilk limit themselves to talking about either politics or world affairs or cultural events, Kaplan discusses a wide array of topics. You get the obligatory chapters on US-USSR relations, the space race resulting from the Soviet launch of Sputnik and how the seeds of the race riots of the 60s were actually well planted by 1959, but there is also a healthy dose of the unexpected. There is a whole chapter on Motown and how it came into being as a direct result of African Americans drawn to Detroit by the promise of jobs in the auto industry. The origin of indie film is traced (somewhat spuriously, in my opinion) to John Cassavettes' improvisational film Shadows. Finally, at least three chapters were devoted to the evolution of jazz music.

The Beat Generation plays a large role in the book as well. I've always been only mildly interested in this topic - the antics of Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsburg just never really held all that much appeal to me. That said, the chapters about these men were fascinating. It almost made me want to go and try to read Kerouac's On The Road again - a book I have started twice and abandoned twice. I know better than that though. On The Road is just a book I will die not having read.

1959: The Year Everything Changed reminded me a lot of my favorite book on the 70s It Seemed Like Nothing Happened in that it gave a really good overview of the time period, sprinkling in just enough detail to keep me engaged but not so much that I was overwhelmed. It painted the era in wide brush strokes, covering a lot of ground in a short period of time, but I also didn't feel cheated. Ultimately, recent history is hard to write about because we're still too close to it. I would argue that we're just starting to get enough distance between us and the 50s such that our experiences now are not coloring our recollection.

Despite that fact, I really do recommend this book to those that are interested in not just recent history but pop culture too. It may not have really been the year everything changed, but it's certainly a year worth reading about.

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