Thursday, September 10, 2009

Reviewing Books I Have Not Read

Other than an excerpt of the first chapter I have not yet read Fred Kaplan's new book, 1959: The Year Everything Changed, which does not mean that I do not have some early (and obviously tentative, at least in terms of the book itself) opinions about it. Journalists, and occasionally historians, love the conceit of focusing on a year and declaring it a turning point. 1959 is not customarily one of those years (is there room in the post-WWII pantheon of years after the dominance of 1968?) but Kaplan tries to make the case that it is. It's no wonder these sorts of books are popular among authors and readers. The writer gets to flex his or her muscles writing about politics and historical events but also about popular culture and sports and any quirky but (supposedly) telling little tidbit they discover in the microfilm reels. I am contemplating a comparable sort of project tied to a specific day in which three huge and only partially connected events took place at least in part as a way to break into that elusive world of agents, trade presses, and the sort of quasi-fame that such projects sometimes bring.

But the problem, of course, is that so often the conceit is wrong. Maybe reading the book in full will change my mind. But I doubt it. If you're a hammer all the world appears to be a nail, and if you're an author writing a thesis-driven history, all the world conforms to your thesis. Every year had its array of events and incidents and momentous events and pop culture moments that seemed to fuel the zeitgeist and those quirky but telling anecdotes that may have been quirky but whose value in tellingness is usually more clear to the author than to the historiography.

Picking 1959 as one such year in which "everything turned" is silly because in 1959 everything did not, in fact turn in or on 1959 any more than it did in 1958 or 1960. Historians are aware that breaking decades into neat little chunks has its utility, but they are also aware that decades are largely meaningless things. And so 1959 as a precursor to the 1960s is only useful inasmuch as you actually believe that "The 1960s" in the way that we think about it historically somehow began magically at midnight on January 1, 1960 (and ended at 11:59:59 on December 31, 1969). Most historians would reject this straitened way of thinking because, well, it is a silly way to think.

Consider this paragraph from the first chapter:

1959 was the year when the shockwaves of the new ripped the seams of daily life, when humanity stepped into the cosmos and also commandeered the conception of human life, when the world shrank but the knowledge needed to thrive in it expanded exponentially, when outsiders became insiders, when categories were crossed and taboos were trampled, when everything was changing and everyone knew it-when the world as we now know it began to take form.

Substanceless and vague, yes. But also mildly insane, or at least ahistorical. The allure of the turning-point year book is obvious. And books about a specific year or day or week or month are not in and of themselves illegitimate. But arguments that a given year marked a clear turning point in human history tend to be wrong precisely because the concept is so seductive.

Again, I have not read Kaplan's book (Kaplan has a PhD in political science but has spent most of the past few years working in journalism writing about international affairs, but by his own admission, mostly about pop culture. And pop culture clearly drives his understanding of 1959). But a problematic thesis is a problematic thesis. I will read the book. And it might be something worth using in a class (anything to get them to read is one of the mantras I have developed in this profession over the years). Or it might change my mind about books of this sort. But I'm being driven by my own thesis, which I can sum up in three words: I doubt it.

1 comment:

Ahistoricality said...

I wish more people would do it the other way around, like Philip Huang's 1587, a year of no significance, which is actually a brilliant piece of work. It's a conceit, obviously, but he's highlighting processes (and biography), so it works.