Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts

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Overview

"I can't remember when I've learned as much from something I've read—or laughed as much while doing it."—Jacob Weisberg, Slate
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 heights, Cultural ...
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Overview

"I can't remember when I've learned as much from something I've read—or laughed as much while doing it."—Jacob Weisberg, Slate
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 heights, Cultural Amnesia is precisely the book to burnish these memories of a Western civilization that James fears is nearly lost.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
In this discipline-spanning magnum opus, British critic-at-large Clive James collects more than 100 brilliantly idiosyncratic biographical essays (with commentary) on major 20th-century writers, artists, and intellectuals whose contributions to Western civilizations are not only essential but, in James's opinion, threatened with extinction. From the expected (Louis Armstrong, G. K. Chesterton, Ludwig Wittgenstein) to the surprising (Dick Cavett, Terry Gilliam), this A-to-Z compendium of witty, aphoristic profiles will edify as it delights -- or infuriates!
The New York Times Book Review
“James's writings include the great tome Cultural Amnesia, the reading of which is something like getting a master's degree in 20th-century intellectual history.”— Elizabeth Gilbert
Elizabeth Gilbert - The New York Times Book Review
“James's writings include the great tome Cultural Amnesia, the reading of which is something like getting a master's degree in 20th-century intellectual history.”
John Simon
… James is a master of aphorism and wry humor. Brevity, we have it on good authority, is the soul of wit, and wit is the salt of the aphorism. A page without several epigrams is a rarity; a page without one, nonexistent. They range from tickling irony to stinging insight, often simultaneously … Despite no particular interest in jazz, I was completely won over by the entries on Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and Duke Ellington. Furthermore, James possesses the magic touch for knocking usurpers like Sartre off their pedestals, reaffirming our love for the likes of Camus and making sure we don't overlook a heroine like Sophie Scholl. And how could we resist Tony Curtis sandwiched between the great philosopher Benedetto Croce and the distinguished scholar-critic Ernst Robert Curtius?
— The Washington Post
Liesl Schillinger
It is irresistible to hijack one of his favorite aphorisms (said by Cocteau of Victor Hugo) and conclude: Clive James was a madman who thought he was Clive James. Still, unlike Hugo, James probably never intended for readers to consume his massive tome front to back; and tucking into the entries on a need-to-know basis can provide rich rewards with no choking risk. Grab a loaf here and there, and feed your mind.
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

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. (Mar.)

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal

Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal winner James, who has published numerous books of criticism, autobiography, and poetry, presents his life's work in this resource guide covering what the author has learned as well as what he has failed to learn in his decades of writing about history and the arts. In more than 107 original essays organized by quotations from A to Z, James discusses some of the great thinkers, artists, humanists, and politicians who have shaped the 20th century, e.g., talk-show host Dick Cavett, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, jazz musician Louis Armstrong, and novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. Preceding each essay is a brief biography of the luminary. Throughout, James states that we need a universal humanism and questions how to get it. His finely written, valuable, and comprehensive almanac, illustrated with 110 photographs, is highly recommended for public and academic libraries.
—Susan McClellan Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information

Kirkus Reviews
The humanities are everywhere, but humanism is at a premium. So observes British writer and television personality James (As of This Writing, 2003, etc.) in this collection, mixing amateurish delight and scholarly immersion in books and ideas. It is an uncomfortable fact that a Nazi concentration-camp commander could murder the day away and then, on returning home, weep at a Brahms recording. A mere liking for books, art and music doesn't make a person good; even Adolf Hitler thought of himself as a humanist, though, James writes, "his connection with the civilized traditions was parodic at best and neurotic always." James adds elsewhere that the connection was more genuine than Stalin's and Mao's, if bested by Hitler's comrade Goebbels, who kept a massive library and even read the books in it. Most of James's subjects in this sprawling, sometimes impressionistic gathering of appreciations are the real deal, though. One is the largely forgotten Viennese cabaret performer Egon Friedell, who wrote a strange and centrifugal book and then committed suicide when German troops marched into Austria. Other of James's quite diverse heroes include Albert Camus, Stefan Zweig, Ernst Robert Curtius, G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh and Dick Cavett, figures who run the range of European humanism, British traditionalism and, well, Nebraskan autodidacticism. James is keen on exploring influences; his essay on Jorge Luis Borges, for instance, draws in the Romanian philosopher E.M. Cioran, who admired Borges's "world citizenship" and refusal to belong to any club that would have him as a member. (Cioran's affiliations included the fascist Iron Guard.) James inclines to conservatism, but definitely notreaction; he admires thinkers such as the anticommunist stalwart Jean-Francois Revel, who "has a lively appreciation of how people can get stuck with a view because it has become their identity," and he urges the view, quite humane, that humanism is closely bound up with ideals of freedom. Exemplary cogitations without a trace of jargon or better-read-than-thou condescension.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393333541
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 9/2/2008
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 912
  • Sales rank: 313,158
  • Product dimensions: 5.58 (w) x 10.88 (h) x 1.55 (d)

Meet the Author

Born in Australia, Clive James lives in Cambridge, England. He is the author of Unreliable Memoirs; a volume of selected poems, Opal Sunset; the best-selling Cultural Amnesia; and the translator of The Divine Comedy by Dante. He has written for the New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, and The Atlantic. He is an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) and a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE).
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