1968: The Year That Rocked the World by Mark Kurlansky

Reviewed by L.D.Y.

Trade, 441 pages, 2004

Rating: 9/10

Reason for Reading: I picked this up at the used bookstore because I figured anything about the 1960s tends to be interesting, and if a man could write entire (and popular) books on things like salt and cod fish, it was a good bet.

Synopsis: In 1968, everything changed – everywhere. Kurlansky examines how revolutions, both personal and political, occurred all over the world, in an odd mix of isolation and an explosion of media that made rebelling students in Germany feel a connection to protesting students in the U.S. or Czechoslovakia. While the 1960s may be better remembered for sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, all of this was born of the politics and the revolutions that Kurlansky expertly explores in this book.

Why you should read this book: It’s easy to look at media footage of the 1960s and think people did little besides smoke marijuana at Woodstock and maybe attend the occasional Vietnam protest in order to keep up a proper level of righteousness, but oh, what an incomplete picture it would be, as Kurlansky demonstrates. He ably paints both a big picture of what was going on all across the world, and humanizes it in the smaller details – specific protests in various countries, charismatic leaders, and the effects they had both on their eager followers and the general public. It’s amazing to think how much was done on a global level when many of us can’t even imagine functioning without the internet today, using it as our main tool of contact and information dispersal. The book stirs up a good level of excitement about the changes that were taking place while still retaining a fair balance between the young rebels and the (often corrupt) establishment. If you’ve ever been interested in the 1960s, Kurlansky will give you a through and engaging look at the politics and social movements that created such a magnificent time in human civilization, especially in terms of equality.

Why you should avoid this book: There’s a lot going on in 1968 thanks to the global perspective Kurlansky takes, so expect to have a lot of information thrown at you at once. Kurlansky has opted to dive into each chapter head-on and then start explaining as he progresses, so have faith that you’ll soon understand all the political figures and points as you continue reading.

Opening paragraph:

The year 1968 began the way any well-ordered year should – on a Monday morning. It was a leap year. February would have an extra day. The headline on the front page of The New York Times read, WORLD BIDS ADIEU TO A VIOLENT YEAR; CITY GETS SNOWFALL.

Fabulous quotes:

On March 31st came the bombshell: President Johnson went on television and announced, “I shall not seek and I will not accept the nomination of my party as your president.’
Suddenly the front-running Democratic incumbent was out of the race, and no one was sure what would happen next. ‘It was America that was on a trip; we were just standing still,’ said Abbie Hoffman. ‘How could we pull our pants down? America was already naked. What could we disrupt? America was falling apart at the seams.’

One of the central themes of the student movement was that Germany was a repressive society. The implied word was ‘still,’ Germany was still repressive – meaning it had failed to emerge from the Third Reich and become truly democratic. The presence of Nazis in government was only an underlying part of this. The suspicion on the part of many students that their parents may have either done or countenanced horrendous deeds had created a generation gap far wider and deeper than anything Grayson Kirk was seeing at Columbia.

Also recommended: Imagining Ourselves: Global Voices from a New Generation of Women edited by Paula Goldman; A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright.

Fun tidbit: Kurlansky has worked as a professional chef and pastry maker.

Would I read more by this author? I’d read a few of his older titles, like Salt, and future books if the subject interested me.

&#169 Lisa Yanaky 2003-2008

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