In some sense, I’m glad Clive James wrote Cultural Amnesia in the early 2000’s. At that time, he was able to end it on an optimistic note. Despite living in a post 9/11 world, he was able to conclude the book with the feeling that if the end of history wasn’t already beginning, that it was imminent.
In 2021 Cultural Amnesia feels more like a coda to the greatest hits of Western Civilization as we enter the neo-1984 era where nothing beautiful is safe from the sanctimonious purges of postmodern puritans hellbent on bleaching our meta-narratives. Where that leads us remains to be seen. I’m not optimistic.
Present context aside, this is a beautifully written book. It’s an indulgent tour of the stars of modern history who come together to form a constellation in which the imaginative reader can begin to see the shape of human achievement, both for good and for ill.
I listened to the audio version which is narrated very nicely by the author. It is, unbeknownst to me when I started it, heavily abridged. Fortunately, each chapter in the book is a self-contained vignette of a person that James found interesting and the book doesn’t need to be read in any order. I’m looking forward to finishing the chapters missing from the audiobook as I thumb through the paper version throughout the rest of of the year.