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Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts Hardcover – March 17, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. From Anna Akhmatova to Stefan Zweig, Tacitus to Margaret Thatcher, this scintillating compendium of 110 new biographical essays plumbs the responsibilities of artists, intellectuals and political leaders. British critic James (Visions Before Midnight) structures each entry as a brief life sketch followed by quotations that spark an appreciation, a condemnation or a tangent (a piece on filmmaker Terry Gilliam veers into a discussion of torturers' pleasure in their work). Sometimes, as in his salute to Tony Curtis's acting or his savage assault on bebop legend John Coltrane's penchant for "subjecting some helpless standard to ritual murder," James's purpose is just bravura opinionating. But most articles are linked by a defense of liberal humanism against totalitarianisms of the left and right—and ideologues who champion them. He lionizes prewar Vienna's martyred Jewish cafe intellectuals; castigates French apologists for communism—especially Sartre, who "could sound as if he was talking about everything while saying nothing"; and chides Borges for not noticing Argentina's descent into fascism. This theme can grow intrusive; even in an entry on children's author Beatrix Potter, he feels called upon to denounce Soviet children's books. But James's brilliantly aphoristic prose, full of aesthetic insights but careful not to let aesthetics obscure morality, makes for a delightful browse suffused with a potent message. Photos.
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From Bookmarks Magazine
For more than 40 years a critic, writer, and public personality, the Australian-born Clive James, prolific author of Unreliable Memoirs, The Meaning of Recognition, and North Face of Soho, among many other books, has garnered a well-deserved reputation as "an eclectic master of the high/low" (Los Angeles Times). James's wide-ranging intellect is on display here in a big way: "doorstop" appears more than once in reviews of the book. Fortunately, the book moves alongthanks to the author's deft prose, his keen sense of humor, and his ability to connect a host of disparate subjects. Though the book clearly isn't meant to be read straight through, even those skeptical of James's agenda admire the scope of the undertaking. Red flags: the seeming randomness of some of James's entries, his digressions, and his inclusion of fewer than a dozen women (including Coco Chanel and Margaret Thatcher) on the list.
Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.
Top customer reviews
If one can accept this is a one man's tour de force based upon directly or vicariously "knowing" the subject personalities, it rates 5 stars.
If you were , like I, expecting something more profound with more pointed opinions, then it's 4 stars.....nevertheless, a highly interesting and quite worthwhile read .
There were several moments where James caught me entirely off-guard with his stealth humor, and many of his essays are very enlightening. I loved his essay on Duke Ellington, for instance, because I've danced to his music for years and knew only a small amount of the peripheral knowledge of the time that James has to offer.
So far, his essay on Georg Christoph Lichtenberg has been my favorite of the bunch. He, lucidly and beautifully, got to the essence of writing, carrying a theme all the way to the decadence of contemporary pornagraphy. He includes details that a more cautious and less confident writer would have dropped, and those details were not there for the shock value but to reinforce the point.
I will probably re-read several of these essays due to the depth that some of them contain. This book has inspired me to learn much more due to the stories he tells and the connections he makes.
"The book is the fruit of forty years of reading and reflection, and is comprised of essays on individuals which frequently include considerations of broader subjects, most notably antisemitism and the value and fragility of liberal democracy. Not all considerations of the individuals are flattering, but all are richly insightful. Most highly recommended."