Cultural Amnesia by Clive James

January 31st, 2008 at 6:41 am

This is a superb book.

Now, I don’t mean to be so Bayard, as I have only read about 10% of the essays, but due to the collection’s nature and my absolute infatuation with the work, I feel more than comfortable addressing it now.

I can’t help it. It’s that good.

“Necessary Memories from History and the Arts,” Cultural Amnesia contains 107 essays on figures ranging from Louis Armstrong to Albert Camus, Dick Cavett to Charles Chaplin, Jean-Paul Sartre to Margaret Thatcher, Marcel Proust to Chris Marker, as well as many other obscure figures that you and I have never heard of but luckily James has. And on and on and on. It is a Treasure and a Wealth of Knowledge.

Laurence Sterne, that great author of Tristram Shandy said that, “Digressions, incontestably, are the sunshine; they are the life, the soul of reading.”

I can’t help but assume that Clive James would agree.

James is the master of the tangent, the digression. He discusses Sophie Scholl and ends up discussing how absolutely perfect Natalie Portman would be to play Scholl in Hollywood’s adaptation of her life and therefore Portman’s unrivaled and special ability and presence on screen. James begins with Terry Gilliam’s excellent film Brazil and ends with an intriguing discussion of, among other things, torture, bureaucracy, the state, Abu Ghraib, dictatorships, Hitler, and the Khmer Rouge.

It is a bizarre and special treat to witness such a capable mind given free reign to postulate, observe, and argue. It is even more remarkable that James does it all so well. In lesser hands controlled by a lesser mind, such an exercise would have failed, resulting in wandering indulgence and insignificant randomness. This book is neither.

Clive James is one of those few critics who make you thankful for critics and not resentful and curious why they don’t create something of their own. James has created something of his own and it is very, very good.

And for all of you like Michiko Kakutani who disagree thinking that James’ “mania for digression can run amok, and the reader does wish at times that he’d stick to the subject at hand,” I can only refer you back to Mr. Sterne.

Bravo, Mr. James.

Read this book. And all the other ones.

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