I read The Sixties by Jenny Diski not so much because I’m interested in the sixties, as because I’m interested in Jenny Diski. I mean, I find the sixties an intriguing time period, but not any more so than, say, the 1930s or the 1790s or the 1660s, other decades when lots of interesting things happened. It’s just that Diski has such a wonderful voice in her nonfiction that I’m ready to read anything she writes. What about you — are there people whose writing you will read no matter what the subject?
The Sixties is short — about 140 pages — and part of Picador’s “Big Ideas, Small Books” series. What makes this book so good, and what makes all of Diski’s nonfiction good (I haven’t tried her fiction yet), is the way she combines ideas and analysis with personal narrative. The Sixties is about the decade as a whole, but it’s also about Diski’s experience of the time, and she has an interesting story to tell. She was very much of the decade, living in London and participating in the drug use, casual sex, and political protests of the time, and she tells her story with appealing openness and honesty. Although she remained skeptical about some of the more extreme political ideas circulating around her, she believed, as so many did, that after their generation, the world would never be the same again.
Diski spends a lot of time evaluating what the sixties did and didn’t accomplish, and although she is aware of how much the world has changed since that time and of how much her generation contributed to the change, she also argues that there is an awful lot that is still the same. Our basic political structures have not changed, our economic system has not changed, nor has our individualism and acquisitiveness. Yes, we are less racist and sexist, at least as far as our laws go, but she wonders just how much attitudes have really shifted. The biggest gains, she speculates, may be changes in attitudes toward homosexuality; this is an area, she believes, of which the sixties generation can be proud.
She also compares how the British and Americans experienced the decade differently (the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement made the decade a much more serious, high-stakes time in America), and considers the extent to which the sixties generation led directly into conservative Reagan/Thatcher era. Here she is quite harsh with her generation for failing to recognize the difference between liberty and libertarianism; there were theorists and politicians saying things about individualism that sounded good at the time but that were actually the opposite of everything the radical sixties generation held dear. It’s one thing to seek personal liberation and freedom to live as one likes, and another thing to want to destroy community and society so that the individual can reign supreme. In the sixties, though, people didn’t always take the time to think about where their ideas might lead or who might warp them for ends they never envisioned.
Diski manages to say an awful lot in 140 pages; the first chapter covers the early to mid sixties when changes were just barely beginning to appear, and then she devotes a chapter each to drugs, sex, politics, education, and psychiatry. Each chapter creates a vivid picture of what the times were like and what Diski herself experienced, and each chapter makes an argument about the legacy of the times, whether positive or negative, lasting or not. And once again I’m reminded of why I admire Diski so much.