Review

1968: The Year That Rocked the World

by Mark Kurlansky



It takes a brave publisher to commission a book about 1968.

One reason: It's a year many think they know all about --- it's the
quintessential Baby Boomer landmark, with America's first cohort of
post-war kids graduating from college in a year marked by two
assassinations (Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.), wild
politics (the Democratic Convention in Chicago, the election of
Nixon) and enough great music to power a classic rock station for
weeks.

Another reason: Survivors of that year gravitated toward media,
often becoming writers --- and reviewers. Like me, for example. I
not only graduated from college in 1968 (magna cum laude and
disciplinary probation, thank you very much), I published my first
book that year, an anthology of the underground press. My book goes
unmentioned in Mark Kurlansky's 1968: THE YEAR THAT ROCKED THE
WORLD. But that's not a slight --- for all that's stuffed into
these 400 pages, there's a lot missing.

Let's start with what's here and what's good. A global perspective,
most of all. It would have been so easy to focus only on America;
as it happens, Kurlansky has a fine eye for European politics and
culture. I was riveted to learn that German press baron Axel
Springer was decades ahead of Murdoch's media when, over an article
about beating up leftists at demonstrations, Bild Zeitlung ran this
headline: DON'T LEAVE ALL THE DIRTY WORK TO THE COPS! The accounts
of uprisings in East Europe are solid. And the reporting of the
Mexican government's suppression of demonstrators in Mexico City
--- with 100-200 protestors killed --- is a shocking reminder that
unchecked authority pretty much does what it wants.

Where the book falls down, ironically, is in the story of America
in 1968. There are terrific set pieces --- the sit-in at Columbia
University, the police riots at the Chicago convention, Walter
Cronkite turning against the Vietnam War --- but considering how
many of the men and women who made history that year are still
alive, there is a curious shortage of first-person reporting.
Instead, there is an odd reliance on Establishment media.

Why odd? Because one of the biggest achievements of 1968 was that
--- for the first time --- we could see the difference between
official rhetoric and observable reality. "My God, how could human
beings do such a thing!" commented Chancellor Kirk of Columbia,
when he learned how protesting students had damaged his office. The
New York Times editorial echoed that sentiment. The police
overreaction to these minor acts of vandalism? Unmentioned. But
just a few months later, at the Democratic Convention in Chicago,
cameras caught the police in the act. Reporters could mouth
anti-left pieties; we saw what happened. And as George Orwell had
noted, decades earlier, "When I see a policeman with a club beating
a man on the ground, I don't have to ask whose side I'm on."

Sometimes the skew between reality and media is --- unintentionally
--- funny in these pages. Kurlansky writes that Bob Dylan began
1968 by releasing "John Wesley Harding" and that this record marked
a return to his folk-singing roots. Not so. Dylan's back-up band
was made of Nashville's finest studio musicians; this was the
transitional record to "Nashville Skyline." But beyond the factual
error is the curious choice of critic Kurlansky quotes: Time
magazine. Anyone who knows anything about Dylan remembers his
merciless skewering of a Time reporter in the classic
documentary film, Don't Look Back. (And this kind of sourcing
happens again and again. When Kurlansky writes about The Doors, he
quotes … Life magazine.)

Kurlansky's choice of sources reveals, I would argue, the larger
problem of the book. His subject is insurrection on a global scale
but he prefers to tell his story through Establishment eyes. And
that brings us to my real unhappiness with 1968 --- its refusal to
take a point-of-view.

Is that necessary in a book of history? In most cases, no; a great
story is sufficient delight. But 1968 isn't a year you can be
neutral about --- it was an ugly, raw, ragtag time, and it grabbed
you by the throat and demanded a response. I remember, on Election
Night, going to see The Living Theatre at MIT. Elsewhere, the votes
were rolling in for Nixon. On that stage, there was the smell of
defiance and the threat of violence --- you couldn't be there and
not feel like screaming, or ripping your clothes off, or worse.
That passion, that sense of life as a daily crisis, is sadly absent
from these pages.

Mark Kurlanksy was 20 in 1968. He began his writing career covering
the waning days of Franco, the Spanish dictator, so he surely knows
a thing or two about the darker side of power. But although the
book begins, "There has never been a year like 1968, and it is
unlikely there will ever be one like it again," he devotes only his
three-page introduction to an exploration of the reasons why.

Rebellion was in the air, he tells us. Whatever the dominant
system, rebels --- mostly the young --- rejected it. Reasons? The
civil rights movement. An alienated generation. A hated war. The
emergence of television as a powerful, in-the-moment medium.

And that's it. Very lucid, but hardly enlightening, not in the way,
for example, that Michael Herr's DISPATCHES took you to Vietnam.
1968 is more like a Time-Life Year in Review --- heavy on overview,
light on edge, emotion, controversy. Oh, Kurlansky has his
feelings: "[My] vision of authority [was] shaped by the memory of
the peppery taste of tear gas and the way the police would slowly
surround in casual flanking maneuvers before moving in, club first,
for the kill." But he describes these reactions as
"prejudices."

Kurlansky might have used that memory as a starting point for a
more radical analysis --- he might have said that 1968 was when
privileged white college kids ripped the mask off their society and
found, beneath dad's smooth corporate face, a cold machine
dedicated to corporations and the rich. He might have said that
Boomers spent the next 35 years figuring out how to deal with what
they learned that year. Alas, he chose to write a lesser book: a
chronology of great interest to those too young to have been there,
a trip down memory lane for those who remember 1968 with
nostalgia.

Reviewed by Jesse Kornbluth on January 20, 2011

1968: The Year That Rocked the World
by Mark Kurlansky

  • Publication Date: December 30, 2003
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0345455819
  • ISBN-13: 9780345455819