1968 – Mark Kurlansky

Mass-market history reaches the recent past, and faces a stylistic problem. The genre tends to a gentle narrative style, rich with curios and always willing to take the occasional detour. But widen the focus and the narrative strains to cope – and since Kurlansky’s main theme is global youth consciousness, he has to range pretty wide. His story jumps from Vietnam to Chicago to Prague to Mexico to Paris, and strands drop out for hundreds of pages before quickly resurfacing. Inevitably, some chapters feel rushed, and the occasional detours stick out even more. A brief history of 20th-century Mexico is interesting, for example, but only emphasises the futility of taking a single year out of history and trying to make it mean something. Even a year as eventful as ’68.

The book kept my interest – the 60s are a bit of a blindspot for me historically and as a factual primer 1968 did its job. But by the end of the year you want to know, what had changed and why? Kurlanksy doesn’t answer so much as run out of story. You can judge for yourself of course – the terms of battle of the ‘culture war’ had been sharply laid out, and it had been further brought to the attention of ‘non-combatants’. Kurlansky has some interesting things to say about television and the changing methods of newsgathering, and makes a case for a lot of ’68 events being crucial in forcing these changes. But we’re only getting part of that story – and this is the problem with the book as a whole. We get entertaining chapters of a lot of important stories, but they don’t add up to much of a whole. The book ends up feeling like the background notes for another, imaginary, more holistic and considerably longer book.