by Clive James
I discovered this book the night Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
went on sale. Having arrived two hours ahead of the much-hyped midnight release, only to land 1,289th in line to purchase my copy, I found myself with more than enough time to give even a two-story super-bookstore a thorough once-over. And then I realized that I had even more time on my hands, during which I could either lose my mind through boredom or (fancy the thought!) crack open a book. And somehow, the book that demanded of me to be cracked that night was Cultural Amnesia
. In this book, quite as long as Deathly Hallows
, veteran cultural critic Clive James (native of Australia, citizen of the world) shows his mastery of that purest literary form—the critical essay—in a series of biographical sketches, glosses on memorable quotes, and engaging reviews of the novels, poetry, painting, music, film, history, and philosophy, that together form what one calls The Humanities. And for good reason. For they represent the best of what the human race can produce through the exercise of intellect and creativity. Their pursuit, and their appreciation, should not only be left up to over-educated academics and over-cultivated humanists. They are the treasure and heritage of all mankind.
I have spent the last several years slowly savoring Mr. James's essays. I have read some of them several times. I have read a few of them aloud to friends and loved ones. I have quoted them in conversation and in writing, and perhaps unconsciously let ideas I found in them shape some of my own opinions. It has taken me until just now to make certain of having read every word of every essay, all 800-odd pages of the book. It is slower going than Harry Potter, I will grant that. But it's been a wonderful book for reading a few pages and pausing to think about them for a quarter-hour or two, for ducking behind during commercial breaks when visiting a home where all social intercourse (including meals) takes place in the glow of a TV set, for sneaking ten minutes of mental privacy during a break in a frenetic rehearsal, or for taking along on a trip to ward off a few dull moments and then losing at the bottom of a carry-on bag for months after returning home. It's a book to be read out of order (since the essays are arranged in alphabetical order of their nominal subjects), starting with the names you recognize and are most interested to learn more about, and spreading outward from there as interesting names are dropped and your sphere of cultural reference is stretched.
Basically, this book accomplishes three things. The first is the reason that I daren't part with my copy of it: It lays out a curriculum for becoming (more) fully formed in the humanities. It goes a good way toward being a through-composed, compulsively readable bibliography of the best and most essential books that you must read if you want to pursue any line of inquiry in western culture, up to and including learning to read in several foreign languages. The second achievement of this book is that it plants the irresistable idea that anybody—even a workaday shmuck like me—can live a rich inner life. It's like this: whatever your "day job" is, let it support your bodily needs while you pursue your spiritual needs outside of working hours. How can one live better in any income bracket than to live his true life, his inner life, to the fullest—to fill it with cultural experiences—theater, music, art, film, and above all, literature!
And the third, and perhaps most serious, thing this book does is to argue that liberal democracy is essential (and in the end, James argues that it may even be inevitable) for the humanities to be fully and most gloriously human. He devotes many pages to mankind's dark and painful experiences in the 20th century, when history proved over and over again that totalitarianism destroys culture and sucks the variety out of life. And though there is a strong tendency in the intellectual community to deny the overwhelming evidence of this—though we should be concerned lest forgetfulness of history lead us to bring back those bad old days—ultimately, if James's analysis is correct, all utopias built on cold theory will finally crumble under the weight of their own self-destroying tendencies, and history will tend towards freedom.
James puts this down to the power of the humanities and the self-correcting ways of humanism. He may not possess all wisdom, but he has formidable taste. And though I couldn't hope to read half of what he has read if I had twice as long a life, I am thankful to him for providing some guideposts for getting started along the way.
Saint Louis USA
Recommended Age: 13+
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