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The History of a Year

An examination of the (many) books that are built around a specific 52-week period.
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In 2010, the journalist Fred Kaplan wrote a book called 1959: The Year Everything Changed. To make a case for that underappreciated watershed year, Kaplan marshaled evidence as disparate asSoviet space power, birth control, the Cuban Revolution, and Kind of Blue.

Ten years later, everything changed again. At least, that’s the argument Rob Kirkpatrick put forth in his 2009 book: 1969: The Year Everything Changed.

The intervening years were also tumultuous. There was 1965, the year that "transformed America,” according to the title of James Patterson’s recent history, and 1963: The Year of Revolution, and 1968: The Year That Rocked the World.

Which year of that radical decade marked history’s true turning point? The answer would be contested among these authors, their readers, and their reviewers. That there is an answer at all—that history can be interpreted as a series of critical, 52-week junctures, sized up like competing racehorses—is presupposed by the titles of these books and dozens of others. Call it the Great Year theory of history. Unlike the riverine currents of traditional historiography, this one is easily apparent on a trip to your local bookstore.

Ben Schmidt analyzed the titles of 30,000 dissertations stored by the American Historical Association. Eight years— 1689, 1763, 1776, 1783, 1789, 1848, 1914, and 1945 —were more than three times as common as the baseline.

At the moment, 1963 holds the spotlight, thanks to the 50-year anniversary. In addition to the aforementioned 1963, released in November, there’s a new book called Dallas 1963, which came out in October.

But this year is also the centenary of 1913, so the bookshop is liable to have hardcover copies of 1913: The Year Before the Storm (released in October) and 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War (May) on display. Perhaps also 1863: Lincoln’s Pivotal Year, which hit stores this February, or 1813: Empire at Bay, a Napoleonic narrative published this summer by the British military imprint Pen and Sword.

It’s enough to dampen one’s enthusiasm for the dregs of 2013, a year whose biggest news stories, at least in this country, featured computer programming errors and a senator reading Green Eggs and Ham. What author could possibly think “2013" would add luster or intrigue to the cover of their book?

Not only the flash-card years get title treatment, though. Consider the past six months of trade non-fiction. June saw the arrival of 1940: FDR, Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler—the Election amid the Storm, by Susan Dunn; Michael Golay’s America 1933; and Christian Caryl’s Strange Rebels: 1979 and the Birth of the 21st CenturyJuly 1914: Countdown to War hit shelves in July. Then there was a cheery September offering: Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War, by Max Hastingsand Ian Buruma’s Year Zero: A History of 1945. October brought us Provence, 1970, a story of a culinary conclave in the South of France; One Summer: America, 1927, Bill Bryson’s snapshot of the dog days of Babe Ruthand Al Capone; George Daughan’s 1812: The Navy’s War; and Eri Hotta’s Japan 1941. In November, 1941. December: Warsaw, 1944.

All in all, 13 separate years were canonized on the jacket cover, some more than once. Nor was this some one-off publishing industry festival of “year-as-history.” In 2012, alphabetizers grappled with 17751812, 185318611912, and 1922. About half the years of the 20th century now have books to their name. If the professors, historians, and journalists of tomorrow keep the pace, it seems as likely as not that 2013 will one day find itself not just the subject but the title of a book.

Annohistory was once a kind of career specialization. Theodore White won a Pulitzer Prize in general non-fiction for The Making of the President: 1960, and pursued the theme with three more editions, starring 1964, ’68, and ’72.William Klingaman has written 19191929,and 1941 as well as two honorable mentions for the genre: The First Century: Emperors, Gods and Everyman; and The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the Volcano that Darkened the World and Changed History. Gregor Dallas has titles that include 18151918, and 1945. The military novelist Robert Conroy has books called 1862, 1901, 1920, 1942, and 1945. (Once into fiction, of course, we have the most famous year-book of all—1984—as well as the well-known 1919 and 2666.)

It’s true that some years are widely acknowledged to stand out from the pack. This spring, Ben Schmidt, an assistant professor of history at Northeastern University, analyzed the titles of 30,000 dissertations stored by the American Historical Association. Eight years—1689, 1763, 1776, 1783, 1789, 1848, 1914, and 1945—were more than three times as common as the baseline. More than a dozen others were overrepresented by a factor of two. Within certain categories, like “the South,” or “War,” the turning points of history changed further still. But with few exceptions, these are the years that start or end periods of study—not subjects unto themselves.

Nowadays, the Gregorian timeframe is as much a fixture of book buying as the silkscreened tote bag. One explanation is that publishers like titling clichés, and the “biography of a year” has joined “A Life,” “A History,” and others as a popular industry formulation. Some subjects may earn a one-year headline long after the author has begun research or even writing: treaties, revolutions, battles, political campaigns, financial panics, and baseball seasons are especially susceptible. In other cases, a year is sufficiently iconic to title a book with a much larger purview. That’s the case for Dallas, 1963, whose material spans several years, or Charles C. Mann’s 1491 and 1493, whose titles—just one digit off from that nursery rhyme year, hanging like a seventh chord—stand for whole eras.

But those books are in the minority. Most annohistory is conceived and executed as the study of 365 days.

The most obvious approach to the biography of a year—moving day by day through events—remains the most rare. This was how Daniel Defoe, in the fictionalized Journal of the Plague Year, inaugurated the genre. (His full title is longwinded in the modern fashion, but relegates the year to the tail end. Surely today it would be: 1665: The Journal of the Plague Year....) Other authors have imitated the “journal” style, with day-by-day installments or chapters for each month. Denis Butler’s 1066, for example, begins, “The first day of the new year was a Sunday.” This is also the form of Florian Illies’ 1913: The Year Before the Storm.

Another popular approach might be called the "slice of life," in which authors argue that their chosen year isn’t exceptional but rather emblematic. In this group we can put Bill Bryson’s recent book on 1927, Maureen Waller’s 1700: Scenes From a London Life, or Hugh Macdonald’s Music in 1853. This is the calendar exegesis, a close reading of events united by space and time.

Most annohistory, however, is an argument for a 12-month pivot in the machinery of history. Some are obvious: There are at least five books called 1066, another three (in English) called 1848, at least four a piece for 1918 and 1968, and a handful for 1979 and 1989. Invariably, the author writes a sentence like this one: “We of the 21st century still live in the shadow of ___.” The blank is filled by 1979, but you could be forgiven for guessing otherwise.

Many other years are less obvious: America, 1908Constellation of Genius, 1922, or that quintet of hyperbolic titles that fill a mid-century decade with so many turning points—1959, 1963, 1965, 1968, 1969—that one can hardly see straight. Taken together, the effect is a splintering anti-synthesis of history. Side by side, these books numb the reader like a stack of breathless resumés.