What I’m Reading: Cultural Amnesia

In an earlier post, I discussed a book I described as a “Shortcut to Smartness,” by which I meant a book that so expands your knowledge and understanding in so many areas that it is like a college course in and of itself.  Here I have another book that fits that description: Cultural Amnesia, by Clive James.  James is a book and television critic who writes for various newspapers and magazines in Britain, as well as an essayist, novelist, poet, extensive world traveler, and general cultural commentator.

Cultural Amnesia is a collection of a hundred or so biographical sketches, mostly on political and cultural figures from the twentieth century–Albert Camus or Margaret Thatcher or Leon Trotsky, say–although there are entries as early as Tacitus.  It is James’s belief that Westerners today are so distracted by technology, fashion, and celebrity that we are losing touch with the humanist, democratic values that built our society, and in danger of forgetting the lessons taught to us by the wars and political catastrophes of the last century.

Despite that overall thrust, each essay is liable to go off on any number of tangents as James’s exceedingly well-educated mind wends its way through its topic.  One of the essays I read on this occasion, on Coco Chanel, French perfume maven and Nazi collaborator, included a discussion of how male children dress up in their mother’s clothes, a comparison of the high-quality fabric in American soldiers’ uniforms in World War II as opposed to their inferior counterparts in Britain and Australia, a paragraph or two on the greater shopping opportunities in the Soviet Union for ranking party members versus the average citizen, and concluded with a very wise discussion of the critical role played by small luxuries in everyday life and how communism denied those luxuries to its citizens.

And so each essay goes, with discussions of antique book sellers in Buenos Aires, the Marshall Plan, film noir from the 1940s, the aesthetic qualities of pornographic movies, how to talk a friend who’s decided to write a novel out of it, the advantage of youth for a poet, why not to be embarrassed when you pronounce a hard word incorrectly, and on and on.  But I hope this doesn’t sound too difficult to read–it’s not.  Clive James himself is a somewhat intimidating figure, reading in five languages and referring to his personal encounters with many of the great figures of our age.  I mean, I consider myself pretty well-read and I feel like my lifetime of reading is about what he gets through in six months.  Yet his prose is easy and quite readable, and each entry is only five to ten pages and endlessly fascinating.

For those reasons, it’s also a good book to pick up and put down.  It came out in 2007, and since purchasing it I’ll pick it up once a year or so and read half-a-dozen entries over the course of a week.  This year, for example, I read the aforementioned Coco Chanel, Mao Tse-Tung, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Charles de Gaulle, Josef Goebbels, and Leszek Kolakowski.  That’s the right way to read it, I think.  A couple familiar figures, a couple less familiar, and a couple I know only by name, if that.

Similar to Boswell’s Life of Johnson, the first book in my “Shortcut to Smartness” series, I think this book would be perfect for a recent high school graduate before entering college.  A summer reading through this book would give a freshman an incredible advantage in historical sense and familiarity with the important people and themes of recent history.  But really, it would be good for anyone with intellectual curiosity and a love of dabbling in history, politics, and the arts, and its hard for me to recommend it highly enough to such a reader.

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