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Cultural amnesia : necessary memories from history and the arts

by Clive James

  Print book : Biography  |  First edition

Cultural Amnesia   (2008-11-19)


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by SJHage

Book Review submitted by: Stephen J. Hage

In the introduction Clive James offers this as prelude to what's coming:  "What this book then proposes-what it embodies, I hope-is something difficult enough to be satisfactory for an age in which to be presented with nothing except reassurance is ceasing to be tolerable."

At the end of the introduction James offers this: "What I propose is a sum of appreciations that includes an appreciation of their interdependence: a new humanism.

What these words mean is expect to encounter chateaubriand, bouillabaisse, caviar and lobster instead of pablum.  It's not a breezy read.  It is, rather, one that grabs you by the throat, wrestles you to the ground and forces you to pay attention.  I promise it will not put you to sleep.

James is a world renowned critic.  I became aware of him and this book while watching him being interviewed on the PBS television series Bill Moyer's Journal.

The book is big, 851 pages; but it is divided into essays listed in alphabetical order dealing with historical figures and luminaries like Louis Armstrong, Jorge Luis Borges, Albert Camus, Miles Davis, Adolph Hitler, Franz Kafka, and Margaret Thatcher.  And keep in mind, this is just a smattering.

As I read it I became increasingly impressed with how learned, intelligent and urbane Clive James truly is.  He can speak, read and write in several languages and his curiosity along with his deep commitment to humanism infuses every idea he presents in every essay.

The essays are bite sized making this a book that invites you to take it in; in bite sized chunks and almost fooling you into thinking it might be easy-breezy.  But as I said, it's not.

While reading it and afterwards, what struck me and haunted me most was this thought: I'll never be able to write as well as this.  I am a writer but Clive uses words to reveal he is both magician and sage.

Read this book and feast on the incredibly sumptuous bite sized offerings within; but don't gorge, that might make you sick. 

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