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May '68 Reading List

by Agathe Reigneron and Shannon Sullivan

Fifty years ago, what began as student-led protests rocked Paris and quickly spread through France, expanding to include factory workers and eventually involving an astounding over 22% of the French population at the time. Considered a turning point not just in terms of politics, but also culturally and morally, traces of the impact of May 1968 linger on in scholarship, politics, and pop culture. To rediscover May 68-- or perhaps to delve into it for the first time-- check out our recommended reading list below. 

Beauty is in the Street: A Visual Record of the May '68 Paris Uprising, edited by Johan Kugelberg and Philippe Vermès, published by Four Corners in 2011

"Beauty is in the street" was one of May 68's most famous slogans, spread by posters around the city. In this collection, Johan Kugelberg and Philippe Vermès have gathered a plethora of the posters produced by Atelier Populaire, a group whose work was not only art but came to be political landmarks. This books also contains many never-before-seen photographs which show the clashes between students, works, strikers, and the police. Nonfiction. In English.

L'Excès-l'usine, Leslie Kaplan, published by P.O.L. in  1987, and to be released by AKpress in September 2018 as Excess- The Factory

Leslie Kaplan’s book follows what was at the time called her "establishment" in a factory in 1968 ; that is, manual labor taken on by students or those who did not belong to the working class. This experience of living with and like the dominated ones is recounted through a female impersonal voice, in this tremendous book. Nonfiction.

Les Années, Annie Ernaux, published by Gallimard in 2008 and by Seven Stories Press as The Years in 2017

In this text  that falls somewhere between autobiography, collective history and sociology, Annie Ernaux evokes memories from post-war period to nowadays. Drifting along with the twists and turns of her thoughts she reflects on the moment of transition embodied by May 68, and the way in which the wind of liberation blew through her own life as well as everyone else's. Fiction.

Les Murs ont la Parole : Mai 68, edited by Julien Besançon, published by Editions Tchou in 1968 and by MIT Press in 2018 as The Walls Have the Floor

I came/I saw/I believed. Prohibiting prohibited. I have nothing to write.

These phrases were among many that were inscribed on walls by protesters during the events of May 68, collected by Julien Besançon and recorded in The Walls Have the Floor. The book captures the story of the revolution through the graffiti-- poetic, hopeful, sarcastic-- that covered cities during the uprising, and shows us the interactive politics that came before social media. Nonfiction. 

May Made Me, Mitchell Abidor, published by Pluto Press in 2018

An oral history of the initially student-led uprising, May Made Me presents the legacy of the revolt from the lips of the young rebels who initiated it, showing how the experiences changed not just the individuals, but history itself. Nonfiction. In English.

From Revolution to Ethics: May 1968 and French Thought, Julian Bourg, published by McGill-Queens and re-released in 2017

Professor Julian Bourg explores the paradigm shift in French thought in the decade following the revolts of May 68, arguing that the 1960s concern for revolution turned into a fascination with ethics in the 1970s. Based on over fifty interviews with participants in the movement as well as newly accessible archival sources, From Revolution to Ethics shows how May 68 made ethics the guide for navigating the contemporary global experience. Nonfiction. In English.

La Société du spectacle, Guy Debord, originally published by Buchet-Chastel in 1967 and by Black & Red in 1970 in English as The Society of the Spectacle

A work of philosophy and Marxist critical theory, La Société du spectacle is one of the cult texts of 1968; as one of the seminal texts of the Situationist movement, it not only provides a striking critique of consumer culture, but also allows you as a reader to get into the headspace of the protesters and strikers of May 68. Nonfiction.

Prelude to Revolution: France in May 1968, Daniel Singer, published by Haymarket Books in 2013

Journalist and writer Daniel Singer challenged May 68 and explored how the general strike and protest have transformed the world in this essential firsthand account of the uprisings. Renowned as an excellent interpreter of European politics, here Singer analyzes the political and social crisis brought on by the revolts for the American audience. Nonfiction. In English.

Paper Tiger, Olivier Rolin, published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2007, originally published by éditions du Seuil in 2002 as Tigre en papier

This novel tells of one single night, during which middle-aged protagonist Martin recounts the May 68 movement as he lived it-- who the protesters were, what they thought they were doing, and what happened-- to a young girl whose father was also a participant. Paper Tiger follows this unlikely couple as they drive around Paris, and gives readers a coming-of-age story for a whole generation. Fiction. 

May ‘68 and its Afterlives, Kristin Ross, published by University of Chicago Press in 2004

In this analysis of the fallout from May 68, Kristin Ross demonstrates how the movement came to serve a political agenda that was the antithesis to its aspirations. Through the media produced at the time of the protests, the book examines how the legacy of May ‘68 was transformed by a new and counterfeit history that removed worker involvement, anti-imperialism, and the influences of Algeria and Vietnam, leaving behind not the equality it sought, but a cultural transformation stripped of its sociopolitical implications.

1968-2008… N’effacez pas nos traces !, Dominique Grange, illustrated by Jacques Tardi, published by Casterman in 2008

Falling on the 40th anniversary of the protests, this book finds its coherence in the themes of racism, misery, inequality, exile, and revolutionary utopia, just to name a few. N’effacez pas nos traces ! presents May 68 audibly and visually, giving a new conception to the movement we know so well--or think we do. Graphic novel. In French.

Eager to learn more? Check out Jason Frank’s talk on “The People as Popular Manifestation” and Ajay Singh Chaudhry breaking down what mass politics is today from this year’s Night of Philosophy at the Brooklyn Public Library.