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Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time

4.11  ·  Rating details ·  1,374 ratings  ·  204 reviews

‘In this book can be heard the merest edge of an enormous conversation. As they never were in life, we can imagine the speakers all gathered in some vast room, wearing name tags in case they don’t recognize each other (although some recognize each other all too well, and avoid contact). My heroes and heroines are here. The reader will recognize some of their names, while

Kindle Edition, 2nd Edition, 912 pages
Published August 4th 2008 by Picador (first published March 1st 2007)
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Dec 04, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: criticism, australian
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
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,
(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
May 04, 2010 added it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
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
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
Jay Green
Feb 17, 2016 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
Mar 28, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Jan 09, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 27, 2010 marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Jul 12, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: lit-crit
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
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
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
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
Leah W
Jul 21, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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
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 ...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
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.

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
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
Steven Peterson
May 19, 2009 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
May 21, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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  ·  review of another edition
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
Ryan Williams
Nov 25, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Linda Robinson
Aug 10, 2009 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
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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.
“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.” 13 likes
“When absolute power is on offer, talent fights to get in.” 9 likes
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