Fred Kaplan: 1959 I swear, it really is the year everything changed.





I have a new book out called 1959: The Year Everything Changed, which I suppose puts me in the ranks of authors lampooned in a story in the June 16 New York Times about books with "titles that make extravagant, impossible declarations." The piece pokes particular fun at titles with "exorbitant claims" about "things that changed the world"—and still more at writers who "claim to have found the single year that changed the world."

Times reporter Patricia Cohen doesn't mention my contribution to the genre—she singles out books about 1968, 1989, and A.D. 33 (the year of Jesus' crucifixion)—but she seems to have my number. Or does she?

I entered into my project with apprehensions of just this sort of eye-rolling. There are a lot of books out there that insist a specific year, or type of fish or grain or mathematical equation, altered the course of civilization. But I went ahead with it anyway, not because I figured I was cashing in on a trend (Cohen's article is headlined "Titlenomics, or Creating Best Sellers")—if I do, I'll be more stunned than anybody—but because, well, I was convinced that 1959 was the real deal.

It began with simple curiosity. Several years ago, it occurred to me that many of my favorite groundbreaking record albums, books, and movies—Miles Davis' Kind of Blue, Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz To Come, The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce, Norman Mailer's Advertisements for Myself, Philip Roth's Goodbye, Columbus, François Truffaut's The 400 Blows—were all released in 1959.

Was this just coincidence, or was it part of a pattern? Was there something more broadly significant about that time? The more I looked into it, the more it struck me that 1959 really was a pivotal year—not only in culture but also in politics, society, science, sex: everything.

Consider: It was the year when the microchip was introduced, the Food and Drug Administration held hearings on the birth-control pill, IBM marketed the first business computer, a passenger jetliner took the first nonstop trans-Atlantic flight, and America joined the Russians in the "space race." It saw the rise of free jazz, "sick comics," the New Journalism, and indie films; the birth of Motown, Happenings, and the Generation Gap; the Lady Chatterley trial that overthrew the nation's obscenity laws; the U.S. Civil Rights Commission's first report, which sparked the overhaul of segregation laws—all this bursting against fears of a "missile gap," the fallout-shelter craze, and the first U.S. casualties in the war in Vietnam.

Something was going on here, but what? I couldn't quite grasp the common theme, the connecting thread....


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