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Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts Hardcover – March 17, 2007

4.0 out of 5 stars 68 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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 along—thanks 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.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 912 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (March 17, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393061167
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393061161
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.8 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (68 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #91,385 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover
Intrigued by the excerpts running on Slate.com, I snapped this one up when it came out. It consists of capsule essays on a wide range of scholars, artists, writers, philosophers, political figures, and so on. The common thread running through the essays is a defense of the humanist impulse in the face of totalitarianism, and how this issue is perpetually relevant. The tone is a mournful one at times, as if the author feels this battle of ideas has been forgotten by succeeding generations. The figures represented run the gamut from Louis Armstrong to Wittgenstein, from Borges to Satie. There are also numerous lesser known figures like philologist Ernst Robert Curtius or polymath Egon Friedell, as well as villains (Hitler and Mao, among others). James's dismantling of Sartre is almost worth the price of admission itself, but perhaps the single best essay is on Sophie Scholl, a young member of the White Rose resistance group in Nazi Germany, who chose to die in solidarity with her friends, as a symbolic gesture of defiance. This essay is the only piece of writing (other than old love letters) that has ever made me tear up. James often goes on his own idiosyncratic tangents in the middle of a chapter, but this is one of the book's charms, like having a conversation with a learned and, at times, frustrating friend.

I was tempted to dock a star in my rating because of the unusually high level of typos. In all seriousness, I have never encountered a book with so many - It may border on an average of one typo per page. Norton, someone was asleep at the switch here. Despite this distraction, a wonderful read.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a fascinating volume, in fact, almost a nonvolume. James notes at the outset that (page xv): "In the forty years it took me to write this book, I only gradually realized that the finished work, if it were going to be true to the pattern of my experience, would have no pattern." He goes on to note of the many brief biographical sketches that he presents in the book (with reflections on related thinkers and on context): "As the time for assembling my reflections approaches, I resolved that a premature synthesis was the thing to be avoided" (page xvi). As such, "If I have done my job properly, themes will emerge from the apparent randomness and make this work intelligible" (Page xvi). Thus, the reader is the workforce to make sense of the various reflections and vignettes.

James puts emphasis, in an "Overture," on Vienna of the late 19th and early 20th century. From there, he provides brief character sketches from "A" (e.g., Anna Akhmatova, Louis Armstrong, Raymond Aron) to "Z" (e.g., Aleksandr Zinoviev, Stefan Zweig), with stops at other letters in between. Thus, the ordering is simply alphabetical, again to make the reader pull things together him or herself. While the thoughts that he injects into these sketches can sometimes be rather close minded (his rather haughty dismissal of thinkers such as Derrida and Foucault), that is easily forgiven for the erudition and provocative comments that recur throughout this book.

Let's take a look at a handful of the biographical treatments to illustrate his approach. Louis Armstrong, while a victim of racism from birth to death (in 1971), rose above that. The intriguing tie between him and Bix Beiderbecke (a white jazz musician, in an era when many said that whites could not play the genre) is one example.
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Format: Hardcover
The main claims of the author are that Western liberalism (the classic definition) nearly perished in the 20th century, due almost entirely to a persistent and recurring urge to totalitarianism; that these movements were paralleled by waves of fawning essays from liberal intelligentsia who apologized for butchers; that the cross-connections between history, music, and the arts are what humanism is (or should be) all about; and that we forget the history of the 20th century at our peril.

So it's dismaying that few reviews even touch on these points.

Personally, I was very intrigued on first reading of the book-- enough to buy and read 3 European and World histories. What I found was corroboration of his facts (Norman Davies' estimate of deaths due to Stalin is at least 54 millions. Mao would make him look like an amateur. Pol Pot-- he had fewer to work with, so he went for the record percentage killed.) And in a fresh way, I can trace modernism and its associated destructive forces from the French Revolution onward.

I then re-read Cultural Amnesia and more fully appreciated Clive James' genius.

A superb accomplishment.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is filled with people well worth knowing about. Most are literary folks and some are `personalities' in the best sense of the word. The majority are urbane and literate. The author, Clive James, is very erudite and sophisticated. Yet in the end this book is disappointing. Why should this be the case?

Perhaps it is because James is a bit too taken with his own erudition. This comes through in many of the essays in this book and is sometimes quite annoying. Then there is the simple fact that most of the essays are far too short to really develop their admittedly fascinating subjects. Of those subjects whose writings this reviewer is familiar with such as Albert Camus and Marcel Proust, both were treated in a rather superficial and not terribly original way. In the essay on Edward Gibbon, James treats one of the most monumental historical works in the English language as a literary exercise and fails to note how much fun Gibbon obviously had in writing it. In his essay about the existentialist philosophy of Jean Paul Sartre, he fails to note that Sartre the novelist provided a far more authentic (so to speak) rationale for existentialism than Sartre the philosopher. James may have gone astray by trying to tackle complex individuals too succinctly to do either them or James justice.

Yet James also produced a very sensitive and well crafted essay on F. Scott Fitzgerald which surely adds new dimension to that subject's character. His work on Thomas Mann was also well crafted and original. Interestingly, both are substantially longer than most of the essays in this book. In the end when he is good James is very good, but when he is bad he is indeed horrid much like the cliché which he must abhor.
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