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Some Summer Reading Suggestions - Part 1

It's that time again - time for sorting through the pile of books that have been sitting there on the night table waiting patiently for your attention.  Or perhaps finally getting around to actually reading Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.  Or even a bit of Tolstoy...

Then again it may be time for a non-fiction page-turner.  If that's the case, some of the Whitmanians have a few suggestions to offer.  Hopefully, these suggestions might add to your beach experience. They also may encourage other TWI members to chime in with some gems of their own. 

First up is a new book by Fred Kaplan, columnist for Slate.


Reading through the timeline in the beginning of Kaplan's new book, 1959 The Year Everything Changed, will give you an immediate sense of just why the author has identified this year as so pivotal to the political, cultural and economic future of the United States.

A few highlights: 

January 1   Castro takes power in Cuba.

January 2   Soviets launch the first spacecraft to break free of Earth's gravity.

January 9   Judge orders Atlanta to integrate its buses and trolleys

January 12 Berry Gordy borrows $800 from his family to buy a studio for his new record company, Motown.

And that is just in the first two weeks of January. 

The rest of the year is equally eventful - from Miles Davis breaking into new territory in jazz, the US Air Force coining the term "aerospace" to stake military claim to space as well as the skies, to the introduction of The Pill, the invention of the microchip, to Ginsberg's Howl, Malcolm X's fateful trip to the Middle East, to the dismantling of the obscenity laws, to the opening of the Guggenheim, and Ornette Coleman's debut in Manhattan.  And this is merely a sampling of what occurred during this remarkable year.

Kaplan weaves a fascinating narrative that stitches together seemingly disparate events that in hindsight seem to have much deeper connections - rapid irreversible change in the way we saw ourselves as Americans, and how America saw itself in relation to the rest of the world.  He also pays particular attention to the arts and the artists who pushed the edges of this new cultural frontier.  He captures with keen insight the artistic undercurrents - highlighting several important artists, writers and musicians who took enormous risks in the process, and who by breaking free of many of the assumptions about what is "acceptable" redefine in the process what is possible.  Young artists today, especially those interested in hip-hop and other current cultural trends, would be well served by reading about the experiences of the artists of that time.

Although heavily weighted toward the arts, Kaplan also focuses on a number of political and economic milestones that at the time may not have seemed all that big a deal, but now we look on them as monumental shifts.  The impact of the pill is an interesting exception.  While few noted the importance of the birth of the microchip, or the introduction of Datsuns and Toyotas into the American markets, or the first American casualities in Viet Nam, the pill was a different story.  The potential impact of women being in control of their own reproduction was not at all lost on various conservative institutions.  The tension surrounding that issue seems eerily similar to the battle over gay rights today.  No doubt in 2059 people will be looking back to this year's controversies with a similar sense of astonishment as young women might today, as they wonder what the fuss was all about. 

Equally noteworthy is Kaplan's narrative about the fairly relentless deconstruction of the obscenity laws that were on the books at the time.  Breaking through these out-dated barriers to free expression was an essential accomplishment in 1959 - an accomplishment that reverberates still to this day.  Not only did marque members of the so-called "Beatniks" take the forefront in this effort, but also publishers like Charles Rosset of Grove Press, who went to court to fight for the right to publish "obscene" material such as D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer.  Rosset ultimately prevailed, and with that and with other limit-bashing performers such as Lenny Bruce, those laws quickly became an artifact of another era.

It is very tempting to recap many of the compelling stories Kaplan relates here.  And there is a page-turner quality to his writing that leaves this reader with an urge to be a bit of a spoiler.  So I will resist that temptation, and invite you to go on the road with Mailer, Ginsberg and Kerouac, Rauschenberg and Pollack, Lenny Bruce and William Burroughs, Miles, Coltrane and Coleman, as these artists provide some of the artistic energy that created the momentum for so much dramatic change in so brief a time. Along the way you will also meet some lawyers, editors, engineers and scientists, who made equally impactful contributions to the world as we know it.

This is a engaging read, written by a thoroughly modern writer for this time.  (His chapters are tightly focused and mercifully brief - ideal for the daily commute and a trek to the beach.) It is also an important book to read what with so much talk of hope and change and new frontiers these days.

Oh, a niggling note - he did omit one important date.  February 3, 1959.  The day the music died. 

1959, The Year Everything Changed, Fred Kaplan  -- John Wiley & Sons 2009 [HERE is good place to look for a copy at a good price while still shopping at an independent book store.] 



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