In my last post, I described that pleasurable but rare experience of learning a book is going to be fantastic after reading just a few chapters. I guess it’s safe to assume that it’s even rarer when this experience happens twice in a row. Happily, I can say that after reading just a couple of chapters of Fred Kaplan’s 2009 book 1959: The Year Everything Changed it’s indeed that kind of book. Just like Robin Wright’s book on the Middle East, Kaplan’s book on the seminal year of 1959 is superb.
Kaplan, a Pulitzer-prize winning reporter, formerly with the The Boston Globe and now a regular columnist for the online magazine Slate, has produced an incredibly well-written analysis of the watershed year of 1959. Employing a lively writing style with countless entertaining anecdotes, Kaplan asserts that 1959 was a year like no other. From the music of Miles Davis and Motown, to the beatnik writings of William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, to public unveiling of the first integrated circuit chip, the forces unleashed in 1959 would resonate for half a century and in the process help shape the modern world.
Asked to write a similar book, most historians would spend the majority of their time discussing the year’s political events and completely ignoring the social and artistic developments relevant to that period. From modern art to the Modern Jazz Quartet and from Castro to Khrushchev, thankfully Kaplan takes a more holistic approach, spending as much time discussing the political as he does the artistic. As a result, one gains a deeper understanding of not just how those forces came to fruition in 1959, but why they have such an enormous impact on the present. For these reasons and others, I highly recommend this book.