2007: 91. Cultural Amnesia

“Born in Odessa, educated  in Kiev and launched into poetic immortality as the beautiful incarnation of pre-revolutionary Petersberg, Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) was the most famous Russian poet of her time, but her time was out of joint.”

Cultural Amnesia, Clive James

Oh, this book!  My dad gave it to me for my birthday because he know I enjoy cultural criticism type books, and he was spot on, because this was a great, even life changing book.  This book is a collection of essays on people that James, an author and critic, thinks are important to know about as part of our (i.e. Western) cultural history.  The essays are alphabetical and range on subjects as diverse as the price of fame to famous people to the horror of totalitarianism.  Each essay touches on something new and interesting, and random, so that you’re constantly seeing things in new ways - I felt like every three pages I was having an aha moment, or having my mind blown by the way that he connected different historical strands into one.  James is ridiculously brilliant (and has a crazy facility for languages - he is always suggesting that certain obscure texts would be a great introduction for the student into German, Russian, or Italian) and extremely well read, but that does not make him seem less approachable, just more informed.

I loved this book - it is a book that it is well suited for dipping into as the mood suits, but I ended up reading it cover to cover and have returned to it twice already (once for Kafka, since I was past the Kafka section once I finished my last book, once to reread the section on Henning von Treschow in light of the news that Tom Cruise is planning on making a movie about the assassination attempts on Hitler).  I recommend it whole heartedly - I will be rereading it, and reading some of the books he recommends, and thinking about what James has to say for a while yet.   Because I can’t copy a whole essay for you to read, I’ll leave you with an aphorism.


“The lessons of history don’t suit our wishes: if they did, they would not be lessons, and history would be a fairy story.”


p. 323 of the hardcover edition, in the essay on Hitler.


Recommended for: EVERYONE.  Pick it up, read one essay and see if you don’t agree.  (I recommend the Sophie Scholl one in particular, but any one will do)


Date/Place Completed: 6/27/07; D.C.

Categories: Non-Fiction; Criticism

© Carrie Dunsmore 2017