June 2004

Rebecca Graber

nonfiction

1968: The Year That Rocked the World by Mark Kurlansky

A controversial politician takes the Republican party in a surprisingly ideological direction. An unpopular war threatens the stability of American society. Across the globe, people clamour for change, as the youth exploit a new form of media to organize on a scale that takes the older generation by surprise. If it weren’t for the crummy pop music flooding the airwaves, you’d think it was still 1968.

Such is the impression gleaned from reading Mark Kurlansky’s new book, 1968: The Year That Rocked the World. While Kurlansky never draws direct comparisons between the past and the present, the parallels with contemporary events are apparent to anyone caring to take but a cursory glance through the newspapers.

Capturing the spirit of the student movement in the sixties, he writes, “This generation, with its distrust of authority and its understanding of television, and raised in the finest school of political activism, the American civil rights movement, was uniquely suited to disrupt the world. And then they were offered a war they did not want to fight and did not think should be fought.”

Kurlansky makes it clear that for others -- international student movements, workers’ movements, anticommunist movements, even the burgeoning feminist movement -- the Vietnam war was mostly a rallying point, with the anti-war movement serving as a model for oppressed people who didn’t even know where to begin, as they sculpted their visceral rage into constructive political organizations.

The book jumps across borders, examining the student movements in France and Germany, reporting on U.S.-Cuban relations, and giving much attention to the anti-Communist movements in then-Czechoslovakia and Poland, especially the build-up to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. The techniques these countries used to backhandedly disseminate information in their relatively closed societies are particularly interesting; for example, newspapers would not report that a student protested, but would print the student’s apology and enumerate the “lies” he was retracting. Similarly, the editor of Polityka, the major newspaper, would write an article praising the government and then run all the letters criticising his article.

Although this is ostensibly a profile of a year, Kurlansky is primarily interested in the protest movements which sprouted wherever there was but a seed of discontent. This isn’t a problem in and of itself. But while the theme gives the book a central coherence, it fails to satisfactorily cover events that flew under the radar of the headlines.

Kurlansky’s main sources were newspapers from the era, and it shows in the organization of the book, the choppy, unengaging style of writing, and -- even worse -- the content. For example, he mentions in passing the existence of a student movement in Japan -- certainly a topic I’d be interested in learning more about. He spends just a few paragraphs talking about Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, and then says in the final chapter that Trudeau’s politicking-by-personality was one of the most important developments of the year. Developing countries are underrepresented, and when they are covered, it is largely through the lens of student politics or U.S.-Soviet relations. Perhaps the only exception is the examination of the PRI government in Mexico; the hegemonic ruling party first saw its support begin to slip in 1968, as it mishandled the student movements to fatal effect.

An over-reliance on headlines seems not only to have affected the general content of the book, but compromised the author’s ability to bring a fresh perspective to the events of the day. One can almost hear the frustrated editor shoving the manuscript across the table -- “Please, Kurlansky, tell me something I don’t know.” Instead, what we get is a straight reporting of events, with minimal analysis (though to be fair, Kurlansky is very patient in giving background information) and few attempts to examine previously-ignored, but important, details. There is little here which would be a revelation to one who had been a politically-aware young adult in 1968.

For all the juicy content, there’s something lacking in 1968 which makes it a fairly dry read. I’d love to be able to call this book intriguing, compelling, enlightening… but I can’t. When Jimi’s playing in the background and some of your main characters are Charles de Gaulle, Robert F. Kennedy, and Allen Ginsberg (to name but a fraction), performing against a backdrop of remarkable drama, it’s nothing less than tragic when the resulting work is merely lukewarm.

1968: The Year That Rocked the World by Mark Kurlansky
Random House Publishing Group
ISBN 0345455819
456 pgs