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Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts

4.08 of 5 stars 4.08  ·  rating details  ·  892 ratings  ·  145 reviews
Finally in paperback after six hardcover printings, this international bestseller is an encyclopedic A-Z masterpiece—the perfect introduction to the very core of Western humanism. Clive James rescues, or occasionally destroys, the careers of many of the greatest thinkers, humanists, musicians, artists, and philosophers of the twentieth century. Soaring to Montaigne-like he ...more
Hardcover, 912 pages
Published March 17th 2007 by W. W. Norton & Company (first published March 1st 2007)
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This book should come with a warning label on it. If you are anything like me, reading it will make your to-read shelf grow tremendously.

Clive James is a well-known Australian writer, critic, broadcaster, and poet; he has often been described (in the US) as a public intelectual. Cultural Amnesia spotlights his comprehensive and deep knowledge is of Western culture, with a special focus on 20th-century Europe. The volume is comprised of 106 biographical profiles of a wide range of writers, music
There is a moment in the Bond film You Only Live Twice where Moneypenny throws Sean Connery a teach-yourself-Japanese book before he leaves for a mission in Tokyo. Bond tosses it back to her with the admirably curt reply, ‘You forget I got a First in Oriental languages at Cambridge.’

I was reminded of this many times while reading Clive James's new and enormous book of biographical essays, Cultural Amnesia, because Bond's breezy insouciance is something Clive James seems constantly trying to pull
Apr 10, 2014 Miriam added it
Recommends it for: Look over the contents and see if anyone there is of interest to you.
I didn't read this book. I read the 30+ pages of introduction. Man, James really loves to talk about himself, doesn't he? You'd think he'd have gotten that out of his system with those multiple volumes of autobiography.

There is also something old curmudgeonly about the tone. "Kids today, no cultural, end of society as we know it, blah blah." Which, I'm in a way sympathetic because yeah, most people are alarming ill-educated and uncultured. But I think they always were. The kind of culture James
A series of 100+ biographical essays on people to know, with a few from earlier antiquity and beyond (Tacitus, Hegel, Montesquieu, Gibbon) but the majority from the long twentieth century. Instead of by themes, they are arranged in alphabetical order, and the broad range of James' survey leads to some jarring contrasts. Next to a long stretch on the history of fin-de-siècle Vienna, we get a romp through the films of W. C. Fields. There are titans of thought and philosophy, writers on the barest ...more
Perhaps the biggest service James performs with this collection of essays is to direct his readers' attention to little-known but worthwhile authors and historical figures, figures like Marcel Reich-Ranicki and Egon Friedell. That service aside, I found myself perpetually rolling my eyes for all of James' flippancy, especially his penchant for dismissing writers and thinkers for seemingly trivial or arbitrary reasons (see his essay on Gibbon for a particularly ill-considered analyses of style). ...more
M. D.  Hudson
Clive James’ massive tome Cultural Amnesia was a great disappointment to me. The format is straightforward enough: take those authors, politicians, arts and entertainment figures that have meant the most to James (good or bad), put them in alphabetical order, provide a biographical sketch, then a quote (or two), and then riff intellectually on that quote. This is a fine way to do an intellectual memoir. But this book is a genial, sprawling mess. Here's why:


Staying on topic, bragging: James
Jan 09, 2008 Rick rated it 5 of 5 stars
Shelves: essays
Cultural Amnesia is one of the best works of non-fiction I’ve read ever. It is thoroughly enjoyable (funny, thoughtful, incisive, generous in many senses of the word), even when it is pondering the recent century’s most awful evils. It is an illuminating read on topics familiar and unknown.

James wrote Cultural Amnesia as a defense of liberal democracy, humanism, and art and culture that supports freedom, tolerance, and understanding. Organized as an alphabetized series of thematic essays, each o
Cheryl Kennedy
Clive James is an Austraian born critic published in The New York Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement, and The New Yorker. Living in London since 1962, the seventy two year old documentarian and chat show host has added to his journalistic prowess and celebrity.

CULTURAL AMNESIA is his forty year project of collecting names from the wide arc of his reading, underlining passages (once he was able to own the books), and making notes in the margins, with the eventual goal of writing a boo
This is not a work for reading quickly. Unless you're an "Oxbridge" grad, in which case, you might not need it at all. In the form of alphabetically-arranged biographical sketches, the Australian social and media critic James offers the short course on both the literary canon (remember that?) and political themes of the last 150 years. As other reviewers noted, reading "Cultural Amnesia" is sure to expand your TBR list--but also to enhance your stock of bon mots. Copious notes are compulsorily - ...more
Absolutely magnificent. It has been a privilege to spend time with Clive James while reading this book and I cannot recommend the experience too highly.

He has the great skill of serious writing and thought, done lightly and with grace, and, where appropriate, with humour. I have given a few instances already as I worked my way through the book. A delight which appears on page 1000 is his description of the film "Where Eagles Dare":

"There is something precious about the intellectual squalor of "
Oct 12, 2010 Geoff marked it as to-read
I was wrong in my initial assessment of this book, I am reading it straight through and there is certainly a linear thread winding through the essays. I'm in the M's and it is phenomenal. The essay on Egon Friedell keeps orbiting my thoughts throughout the day. Really, everybody, go find a copy of this book and read it. I didn't think people wrote like James anymore.
Lyn Elliott
Like others who rated this book highly, I regard this as a contemporary classic which places James amongst significant intellectual figures of the twentieth century. As the title indicates, his focus is on culture rather than politics or economics, though the horrors brought about by the extremist politics of fascism, Nazism and Communism are themes to which he returns throughout. He is unforgiving towards writers and intellectuals who have slid away from confrontation with the enormity of the d ...more
Leah W
Jul 21, 2008 Leah W rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: polymaths, aspiring polymaths
Even though I was hooked on the excerpts of some of the essays from this book, it took me awhile to get to. It's a daunting, lumbering brick of a book that took up a lot of my reading time early this year.

Over the course of many, many essays, the format is about the same: it's a cultural figure (mainly from the 1900s, but with some extreme exceptions), there's a little biographical sketch, and then Uncle Clive tells you a story. A great deal of the time, this story has something to do
From the Rupert Murdoch of cultural criticism, a gigantic anthology of cocktail-party, wafer-thin "takes" on artists, thinkers, and political figures from Tacitus to Tony Curtis. There's little sustained thought, a lot of nervous jumping about between trivia and self-aggrandizing anecdotes. CJ drops names, boasts of learning Latin to read Tacitus and French to read Montesquieu, but one can't escape the impression of a mind that is broader than it is deep. If it never occurred to you that Satan i ...more
Oh, what a book.

James (who I'd never heard of before) summarizes a lifetime of reading, and note-taking, and it's essay-sized fireworks for 800+ pages. He usually starts off with a mini-biography of the essay's namesake, only then to go wherever the links take him - reading these essays feels like talking to someone who's in love with his work. 'This guy wrote some of the greatest essays ever, oh by the way if you like him there's this half-forgotten contemporary artist whose arias you should li
I don't think I have anything new to add to the other reviews but here's my 2p worth. When I first started reading this - eons ago - I really enjoyed it but I have downgraded it from 4 stars to 3 and am considering reducing it further. It's extremely repetitive and as bad as the Nazis and Stalin were does he really suppose he's saying something new in each essay that drags in yet another reference to the Holocaust or the purges in Soviet Russia, no matter what the starting point?
And whilst I gi
Clive James' essays on selected quotations from the 20th Century.

I'd written my initial reaction to this book last year - and having finally finished it a few months ago I can say this book is good for you.

Yes, it is scatterbrained and yes, it is difficult to follow - James has not written a narrative, but a collection of essays that riff on quotations he has collected over the years.

Attempting to weave a common thread through his essays would have been impossible: he jumps from discussions of
Have you ever met one of those people who seem to know just about everything about everything and, moreover, who can talk about everything without making you feel like a complete idiot? I've been fortunate to meet two, maybe three people like that in my life. Clive James, I suspect, is NOT one of those people. His erudition and self-assurance--though not always off-putting in the reading--might grate at a cocktail party. But he writes with such limpid precision that a lazy reader like myself wou ...more
Another author, in a passage I have regrettably managed to misplace, once compared each educated person's accumulated knowledge of Western culture as a unique, personal "cathedral" built with care and pride.

This book is a roughly 850-page blueprint of Clive James's cathedral. He focuses mainly on writers in Eastern Europe during and prior to the Holocaust. It is unclear whether he recognizes that he is providing a personal, not an objectively correct, definition of the culture and genre that is
Fantastic reading whether you have months to spare or have come home from the bar, almost seeing double but still awake enough to need to settle down with a good book. Each chapter is about an individual (artist, writer, dictator, philosopher, etc) of the 18th-20th century or about one of their ideas and it's ramifications. A demanding yet engaging book. Everyone from Dick Cavett to Terry Gilliam to Adolf Hitler is included. Quite heavy on the WWII-era personalities. My favorite thus far is the ...more
Jim Coughenour
This is the sort of omnivorous omnibus that you'd expect to be flatulent and full of itself but (so far) it's fairly fabulous. It's series of essays, each misleadingly titled after a miscellany of famous and obscure personages with no discernable relation to each other — who turn out to be excuses for him to write about whichever obsession springs to mind. I started by picking and choosing; then flipped back to beginning and started reading straight through. It's a romp, entertaining and full of ...more
Ryan Williams
I was lucky enough to see Clive at the Garrick in Lichfield a few years ago. He signed my copy of this book 'To Brian', but I'm willing to let that go. It's a kind of follow-up to his TV series Fame in the Twentieth Century, whose lack of success, from the way he writes about it in The Blaze of Obscurity, evidently still pains him. It is also, to paraphrase JM Coetzee, a crash course in civilisation - albeit a bitty one.

I found the essay on the Gulag-Denying Jean-Paul Sartre long overdue, and t
If you are a female cultural figure, James would like to feel you up. Especially if young and martyred. Whether male or female, you are rated on your response to Nazism and Stalinism. So thinking is only important in its response to power, blood, treasure? I don't know. Power blood and treasure are certainly among the important themes of history.

Thanks to a major ego for introducing this poor ole boy what only knows what he larnt in school to the wide, wide world of Viennese, Jewish thought of t
Linda Robinson
Clive James is a thinker. He's one of the few essayists (I forgot the word he applies to himself) that I can disagree wildly with, and still read what he has to say. As a thinker, he makes his reader think. That's a rare gift.
Steven Peterson
I read this book a while back and just ran across it again. This is a fascinating work, 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." 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 ...more
Sep 03, 2008 Jan rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: anyone
Clive James has two qualities which every cultural critic ought to envy: a penetrating wit that never comes cheaply and is always instructive (I laughed out loud reading his musings on "Heat", the DeNiro/Pacino movie), and a sober and insightful view of history, which means that he is never afraid to point a finger at major figures who shrunk from great moments, or to point the spotlight at minor figures born into the wrong moment (or the wrong totalitarian dictatorship).

The book itself is a ram
I'm not sure I can dare to review this magnificent book, but I'll have a go! Clive James has selected writers who have influenced the cultural life of the 20th Century, mostly from that time, but a few earlier ones, gives a brief biography, followed by a quote which he discusses and often expands upon to bring myriad themes into play. His main objective, I think, is to show how a humanistic approach to life is the way forward. Undoubtedly he believes that the Second World War, and particularly t ...more
May 07, 2008 Biblioasis rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommended to Biblioasis by: Charles Foran
“Much beauty,” Clive James writes in Cultural Amnesia, “begins as a consolation for what can’t be mended.” This perfectly captures the animating spirit of this splendid, splendid collection of essays and biographical sketches, the end result of more than 40 years of reading and ruminating. Ranging from Anna Akmatova through Egon Friedell (one of the many tragic heroes of this volume), and ending with Stefan Zweig, it offers 106 portraits and many more possibilities. Though dark and disturbing – ...more
Ted Burke

The estimable James, novelist, poet, and critic, has an opinion on everything having to do with culture and the arts, and with Cultural Amnesia , an alphabetized collection of essays on the artists, poets, musicians, writers and film makers he feels we should be conversant in, lest we forget, get lazy, or simply stop giving a good goddamn of what brilliant men and women are trying to do. James does give a damn, fortunate for us, and sallies forth with learned and nuanced barbs, jibes, praise, an
This book is unique in my experience and it was my introduction to Clive James. The book is a collection of biographical essays by Clive James, first published in 2007. The U.K. title, published by MacMillan, is Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time, while the U.S. title, published by W.W. Norton, is Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories From History and the Arts. The cover illustration was adapted from a work by German Modernist designer Peter Behrens.
The book is series of essays on p
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Librarian Note: There is more than one author in the GoodReads database with this name. See this thread for more information.

An expatriate Australian broadcast personality and author of cultural criticism, memoir, fiction, travelogue and poetry. Translator of Dante.
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