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Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts
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Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts

4.11  ·  Rating details ·  1,148 Ratings  ·  174 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
May 04, 2010 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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
Jay Green
Feb 17, 2016 rated it did not like it
My original review at the Irish Left Review:

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
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
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 "
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
Leah W
Jul 21, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
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
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
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
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
May 09, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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 of
Jim Coughenour
Jul 10, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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
Sep 12, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Linda Robinson
Aug 10, 2009 rated it really liked it
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.
Nov 16, 2016 rated it really liked it
I'll put it in my "read" shelf even though I've only read small chunks of it, because I don't think I'll ever read it in it's entirety (because some of it doesn't interest me at all).
I am currently halfway through this book and I can already tell you my final review: I will absolutely refuse to star this book. It is brilliant and I hate myself while reading it - because it is a lit-con.

The cover of my copy lured me with the names of Louis Armstrong, Walter Benjamin, Siegmund Freud, Franz Kafka and Marcel Proust. What could seriously go wrong?

Well, as it turns out: a lot.

The back of the book tells you something about 100 essays, when in fact you are presented with a name on t
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
Oct 29, 2013 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
An interesting but also annoying book. Interesting because it deals with intellectual figures you have heard of- or never heard of- and deals with them (generally) in bytes of six or seven pages. Although not all. A tendency the author has is to begin describing one figure he has selected as subject, but then, to run off someplace else and spend a great deal of time on some other figure, all within the bounds of the first figure's biography. Take (as an example) Arthur Schnitzler- one of those w ...more
Sep 03, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
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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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“Friedell caught the essential truth about people prone to catch-all theories: they aren’t in search of the truth, they’re in search of themselves.” 9 likes
“When absolute power is on offer, talent fights to get in.” 7 likes
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