The Sixties, by Jenny Diski

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.


Filed under Books, Nonfiction

14 responses to “The Sixties, by Jenny Diski

  1. I really must read her! I’ve had Skating to Antarctica on my shelf since this time last year and I very much want to get to it. I love your review here and can see how rich and intelligent and honest her voice must be.


  2. I do have authors like that–not that anyone comes to mind at the moment–I suppose someone like Elizabeth Taylor whose writing style I admire. I also have several of Jenny Diski’s books that I am sure I bought when I read your posts though I have yet to read any of them. Maybe this year?


  3. Oh you make me want to pick this up! I am going to have to see if my library has it!


  4. I also am intrigued by the book based on your review. A short book that says a lot well–I like that.


  5. Litlove — I would really love to know what you think. It’s the combination of intelligence and honesty that gets me. I hear a similar voice when I read Mary McCarthy and Joan Didion, and I love them dearly too.

    Danielle — I have a few others too — Nicholson Baker, of course, and Mary McCarthy. It would be wonderful if you read Diski this year! But I know how it goes with the many, many books there are to get to!

    Iliana — I got my copy from the library, and I’m so glad they had a copy. Otherwise, I might not have read it. Actually, I’m surprised they had it because I don’t see Diski’s books very often anywhere in the U.S.

    Lilian — yes, there’s something so admirable about getting across so many interesting ideas and being succinct about it! It’s hard to pick up long nonfiction sometimes, at least for me, so I appreciate brevity.


  6. I totally have authors like that – I’d read any biography by Hermione Lee, for sure. Your description of Diski’s style is appealing; I’ll have to check her out sometime.


  7. The only thing that just “saved” me from requesting the book from the library is that they just got it and haven’t finished cataloging it yet. The only other book of hers they have is called After These Things about the relationship between Isaac and Jacob in the Bible. Have you read that one?


  8. verbivore

    I’ve put her name down several times as someone I’d really like to read, but haven’t done it yet. And I need more non-fiction in my life, so she sounds like someone I should include.


  9. booksplease

    Diski is one of those authors whose writing I’ll always read. I’ve read a few, but not this one – I hope my new library has or can get a copy.


  10. I am looking forward to getting a copy of one of her books someday — your reviews make her so tempting!


  11. I LOVED the last book of hers that I read so this is definitely a must-read for me as well – and you do her such beautiful justice with your review.


  12. I will read anything David Sedaris writes (of course), even a grocery list. And I will read anything Mary Roach or Sarah Vowell write. And I’m beginning to think I might read anything Jon Krakauer writes (the verdict is still out on him). I must read Diski (which I think I said the last time you wrote about her).


  13. That previous comment sounds an awful lot like me, doesn’t it?


  14. Emily — you make me want to read a Hermione Lee biography! I’ve only read her Virginia Woolf’s Nose book, which was quite good. I’m just so reluctant to start a super-long biography because it will probably take me a month to read.

    Stefanie — I haven’t read that one. I haven’t gotten to her fiction yet, but I’m curious about her latest novel, Apology for the Woman Writing, which is about a young woman from Montaigne’s time who becomes obsessed with him and meets him. Sounds fascinating, right? I’m awfully close to ordering it right now!

    Verbivore — oh, if you want more nonfiction in your life, Diski is definitely the way to go! I love nonfiction that mixes narrative and ideas, and she does that combination so well.

    Booksplease — glad to find another Diski fan! Very few people have heard of her in the U.S., or at least that’s the way it seems to me.

    Debby — just let me know whenever you’d like to borrow one of mine! 🙂

    Courtney — I’m so glad you read and loved Diski. I don’t know why she isn’t more widely known. I’m totally committed to getting all of her nonfiction at some point.

    Emily B. — if I hadn’t followed the link and remembered what you wrote about your library reviewing, the Sedaris reference would have given it away! I’m guessing you would like Diski. You might even like her a whole lot. Her attitude is just wonderful.


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