Cultural Amnesia: Clive James

This is my first attempt at this, so here goes.

Cultural Amnesia is a project book. It’s the kind of thing you can dip in and out of, which is what I am currently in the process of doing. It’s laid out in alphabetical order (obviously) and is organised into a series of essays that use quotes from landmarks of the twentieth century as springboards for discussion on culture. I am currently working my way through the ‘E’ section, having just finished reading about the wasted talent of composers ‘interrupted’ by death before they were able to compose further masterpieces, a discussion that began with the musicologist Alfred Einstein.

James has a witty and engaging style. He has to, the book is over 800 pages long. Usually I would be put off from reading something of this length purely for practical reasons, such as wanting to be able to carry other things in my handbag with it. Yet, the separation into bite-size chunks means you can pick it up in a spare moment and find yourself laughing out loud at the witticisms.

He has a flowing style that paints the picture of being in a conversation with the man. In fact, I would love nothing more than to engage James over coffee, I feel that what he doesn’t know about the workings of culture in the twentieth century is  not worth having an opinion about.

The only thing that I found marginally grating whilst reading this book was the pretentious overtones that were maintained throughout. It’s only a minor point, as I feel that its very hard to record insight into culture without some pretension. At the end of the day, if you are looking for a book that is easy to dip in and out of, yet gripping to discover I would recommend this to anyone with a healthy interest in expanding their cultural knowledge.


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