Wednesday, May 5, 2010

1959: The Year Everything Changed by Fred Kaplan

1959 was, I have learned, an important year. It marked the invention of the integrated circuit, the advent of the birth control pill, the beginning of jet air travel, the start of the race to the moon and the Vietnam War, and major breakthroughs in music, art and literature. It was a hinge point between the generation that had been through two global wars and a depression, for whom social good meant formal suits and dresses, conformity to the rules and "civilized" behavior, and a new generation of iconoclasts who wanted to rip apart conventions to expose what was underneath.

In a series of essays on a wide range of subjects, Kaplan's 1959: The Year Everything Changed explores the different breaking points where the old order started to crack and new ways of thinking began to poke through. Each chapter deals with one subject, explores the antecedents of the changes, and in some instances takes the reader forward into the 60s and 70s to show what happened next. This is very much an American story; although the action occasionally shifts abroad, the reader doesn't get much sense of what was happening in the rest of the world. It's a very personal, non-exhaustive short (244-page) history that doesn't engage (at least in the text; I didn't read the endnotes) with the work of historians of the era.

For all that, I enjoyed it. I was born in 1959 and was too young to appreciate much of the 1960s, but this book has given me some starting points from which to explore a decade that I'm starting to feel I need to understand. I was vaguely conscious of growing up in a time of important transitions, especially being in England where traces of World War II were still very much apparent, but by the time I reached the age of real awareness we were well into the 70s and the changes that Kaplan enumerates were pretty much taken for granted.

I'm not sure how much I would enjoy 1959 if I didn't have that sense of peripheral familiarity with the era. For anyone under 40, this time must fall squarely into the category of "history", and I don't think the reminiscence style of writing really works well there. I'd love to get the thoughts of younger Book Book contributors on this. For me, this is a book written by a Boomer for Boomers. But if you like popular history, it's well written and pacy. Worth a look.


Keetha said...

This book is on my to-read list - it sounds fascinating. I appreciate the review.

Have you read Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure? I enjoyed it - it's a non fiction book recounting a cross country trip Harry and Bess Truman made after he was President.

Jane Steen said...

No, I haven't read that one Keetha. I like the sound of it, though, and will add it to my list. Thanks!