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Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts

4.12  ·  Rating details ·  1,682 ratings  ·  252 reviews
Hardcover, 912 pages
Published March 17th 2007 by W. W. Norton Company (first published March 1st 2007)
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Average rating 4.12  · 
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Dec 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: australian, criticism
A Critic For All Ages

I once met Clive James, on the raised pavement of the Barbican in London. We both had weekday flats there and I had seen him before in his daily pedestrian commute. Encountering him one day, I stopped abruptly and greeted him effusively as if an old friend. I probably had interrupted a reverie, so looking up and seeing a face that might have been vaguely familiar, he stopped to chat - about the weather, and the state of the Barbican landscaping as I recall. We parted with ne
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
(Edit November 2019: Oh, Clive…rest in peace, you magnificent bastard. You brought me innumerable moments of pleasure and inspiration. Here's to a life well lived and I sincerely hope Margarita Pracatan will be singing at the funeral. Cheers!)

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 Orient
maybe 2 1/2

Even when I was rather enjoying a few pages of one of these essays, a feeling kept lurking in the background that James expected me to be taking notes - both so I wouldn’t forget the pearls of wisdom he was scattering, and so I wouldn’t forget who gifted them to me.

Why I didn’t like the book at all.

First let me admit that I only read about 25% of the book, plus the Introduction.

James talks down to his reader.

How does he do this? The most obvious sign is when he over and over says so
I didn't read this book. I read the 30+ pages of introduction and some entries here and there. 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 culture, 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
MJ Nicholls
A bulletproof tome of time from the smartest man to ever be named Clive. A compendious compilation of cultural and historical monsters and man-stars (and women-stars), the volume swings with opinions on literature, the nature of evil over the century (the book’s kernel is a philosophical exploration of the holocaust), Clive’s own obscure literary heroes, and a unsummarisable outpouring of anecdotes, ramblings, opinions, and endless stream of erudition that leaves the reader in awe. I would award ...more
M. D.  Hudson
Feb 11, 2011 rated it it was ok
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
Dec 02, 2018 rated it liked it
Wowing, breathtaking, challenging, provocative, pedantic, enervating and frustrating
I could write pages on end about this book: it is so rich and challenging (with more than 800 pages of dense text) that it certainly does not leave you indifferent. For all clarity: this is not an encyclopaedia. It may be built around a little more than 100 historical figures, but it offers only a limited amount of biographical material. James uses the figures as an occasion to convey his personal opinions on a w
Jay Green
Feb 17, 2016 rated it did not like it
My original review at the Irish Left Review: http://www.irishleftreview.org/2008/1...

As a teenager watching Clive James on the TV of a Sunday night, I was never quite sure what to make of his combination of sparkling wit and sneering sarcasm. He was undeniably funny and reassuring yet at the same time somehow unable to disguise his discomfort at fronting a show composed of short, superficial witticisms on the quintessential mass medium of the second half of the 20th century. He seemed to feel it
Charlie Miller
Jul 04, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: essays
Wow,. RIP Clive, one of our great devotees to the arts and culture. A tour guide to the intellectual pathways that lie behind us, this is his epic collection of essays on individual people that he deems worth remembering.
Having said that, I was brought to the rude awakening that this version of mine was only the heavily abridged audiobook, whereas the original work is a tremendous 900+ pages. In this case though abridged simply means 'a selection of' as apposed to text being edited out. It's al
Sep 27, 2010 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. ...more
Jan 09, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Lyn Elliott
May 09, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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
Mar 28, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: belles-lettres
Now I get why people are enthusiastic about Clive James. I first tried Latest Readingsand found it flat, but these brief profiles of writers, politicians, scientists, etc are gems. Beautiful turns of phrase. The only problem is my To-Read list grew exponentially while I was reading it. I really enjoyed finding out about some Viennese writers and thinkers I didn't know about--James is marvelous on the cafe culture. ...more
Jul 12, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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
Nov 19, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: essays
I had a tough decision in deciding to read this seemingly inspiring, knowledgeable essays by Clive James since I have never read him before; however, I made sure to be familiar with his writing style by reading his Unreliable Memoirs (Pan Books 1981) first as a supporting strategy and I found it arguably and challengingly readable. Before starting reading this hefty hardcover, I hoped I could make it from my self-motivation after reading this interesting recommendation:
A lifetime in the making,
Shocking sophistry
Masterclass in arrogance
(Ph)allacies abound.

An original haiku to commemorate my inability to complete this irritating tome. I had earnestly embarked on the promised 'crash course in civilization' as advised by J.M.Coetzee, or as 'Notes in the margin of my time' as my second edition offers, not 'Necessary Memories....' together with the same lightbulb picture.
I had known Clive James as a TV & media pundit, lugubrious celebrator of the weird & wonderful, and master of the witt
Nov 25, 2012 rated it really liked it
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. In many ways it's a follow-up to his TV series Fame in the Twentieth Century. It is also, to paraphrase J. M. Coetzee, a crash-course in civilisation.

I found the essay on the Jean-Paul Sartre - the man who spent a lot of time denying the existence of the gulags, and even more time sweeping all mention of them under the rug - long overdue. It’s n
John Pistelli
Please read my complete review here. It begins, inflammatorily enough:
Is it possible to ask, without sounding like a morbid troublemaker, why the death of Clive James last November was not greeted with the outpouring of vituperation that marked Harold Bloom’s demise the month before? Granted, Bloom celebrated Milton’s Satan and took a certain delight in playing the villain, as opposed to James’s avuncular televisual charm, but still—don’t the politically fastidious take politics seriously?
Read m
Oct 17, 2008 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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 "
Bryan--The Bee’s Knees
Plenty enough comments about this one--and after reading through it with a couple of reading friends, I feel like I've said all I want to say about it already. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the cultural history of the 20th Century, James' point in all these essays is to raise ideas that, if we are not careful, could be forgotten as Liberal Democracy moves forward into the 21st Century. Some of the figures that James focuses on will be unfamiliar to the common reader (close to half ...more
Leah W
Jul 21, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Even though I was hooked on the Slate.com 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
Mar 03, 2021 rated it really liked it
[N]o matter how much you admire a novel, after about a year you forget everything in it.

A collection of some 106 essays, named after persons of note, mostly from Europe in the first part of the 20th century. He starts from A (Anna Akhmatova) and ends at Z (Stefan Zweig) and those two gave me a sense to the boundaries of his project - Europe, first half of the 20th century. James lavishes his attention on those from Germany and Italy - the literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the musicologist Al
Jun 18, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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
Clive James manages to both enthrall you and challenge you with every sentence he writes. This is the thing that impressed me most about his essay writing skills: his sentences are mostly beautiful, sometimes very long and at all times packed with a lot of hidden meanings, irony and cleverness. His range of subjects is massive - in this book there's an essay on Tacitus, and one on Charlie Chaplin. You can figure out by yourself how wide the spectrum is. It is definitely a hard read, not for the ...more
Steven Peterson
May 19, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
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
May 21, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
Christopher (Donut)
The Picador e-book came with three extra essays, on the 'sludge' CJ read as a boy, on a stalker of Nicole Kidman, and on Formula 1 racers, all worthwhile, although I was kind of miffed that such a long book was just a little longer.
And I don't want to exaggerate how long it took to read (about a year, once I started in earnest). Somewhere in the "M"s my enthusiasm peaked, and the rest of the alphabet was, if not a repetition of themes, then at least less likely to astound the reader.

One wonders
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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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