To Read Is to Fly

“To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.” 
― Alberto Manguel


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Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts - Clive James This book should come with a warning label on it. If you are anything like me, reading it will make your to-read shelf grow tremendously.

Clive James is a well-known Australian writer, critic, broadcaster, and poet; he has often been described (in the US) as a public intelectual. Cultural Amnesia spotlights his comprehensive and deep knowledge is of Western culture, with a special focus on 20th-century Europe. The volume is comprised of 106 biographical profiles of a wide range of writers, musicians, artists, actors whom James deems important to know to understand 20th-century cultural, intellectual, and political life. (Note that some figures lived in earlier centuries, but James always makes their relevance to the 20th century clear.) These brief essays are organized alphabetically, and structured around one or more quotations from the individual being featured, which James uses as a jumping off point for a series of ruminations. While he stays focused on the life of the individual being profiled in some cases, in others his thoughts take him to other cultural and political figures. Following his connections and seeing how his mind works is part of the fun of reading this collection.

Anyone who fears that Cultural Amnesia is a staid, boring encyclopedic volume need worry no longer. James clearly loves learning and sharing his knowledge. He often talks about his experiences teaching himself to read a host of languages, including Spanish, German, and Russian by having a dictionary in one hand and one of the classics he discusses in his essays in the other. He clearly wants us all to join him in what he says is the best way to learn a new language.

In addition, these essays are developed along some common themes, particularly James's championing of humanism and liberal democracy. He writes movingly about writers' responsibilities to fight totalitarianism, as he draws on positive and negative examples from World War II in particular, with special attention to Germany, Austria, and France. As I was reading, I felt I was deepening my understanding and appreciation of Western culture, sometimes by taking a new look at a well-known figure, and other times by learning about a previously unknown person whose work I am know seeking out. (Top on my list is Egon Friedell, whose 3-volume A Cultural History of the Modern Age has been reissued and is high on my April list of books to order).

I read through the essays in Cultural Amnesia in order, which led to some interesting juxtapositions. I moved from Louis Armstrong to Raymond Aron, from Albert Camus to Dick Cavett, from Coco Chanel to Charlie Chaplin. In the M's, I spent some time with Heinrich Mann and Thomas Mann, after which I segued to Mao Zedong. I think it is fitting, given James's central themes, that his final sketch before his conclusion is one of Stefan Zweig, whose memoir [b:The World of Yesterday|629429|The World of Yesterday|Stefan Zweig||615762] I just reviewed. Zweig was one of the foremost proponents of the liberal humanism, the internationalism, the commitment to freedom through culture, that James strongly advocates. In his concluding essay, James writes stirringly of the reasons why 21st-century readers should look to the past to understand a way forward to protecting liberal democracy from the forces of hatred, intolerance, and totalitarianism in the future:

"The only answer comes from faith: faith that the rule of decency – which at last, and against all the odds, looks as if it might prevail – began in humanism, and can’t long continue without it. How will we know if our earthly paradise is coming to pieces, if we don’t know how it was put together? It was the human mind that got us this far, by considering what had happened in history; by considering the good that had been done, and resolving to do likewise; and by considering the evil, and resolving to avoid its repetition. Much of the evil, alas, was in the mind itself. The mind took account of that too. The mind is the one collectivity that the free individual can thrive in: which is lucky, because live in it he must. Even within ourselves, there are many voices. Hegel, when he said that we can learn little from history, forgot about Hegel, author of the best thing about history that has ever yet been said. He said that history is the story of liberty becoming conscious of itself."

Clive James

A poorly formatted but serviceable web page includes the table of contents for Cultural Amnesia, in case any of you would like to review the vast array of people profiled by James: Amazon's "look inside" feature provides another view of the Table of Contents:
James is currently diagnosed with leukemia and emphysema. A number of articles published in Australian papers earlier in March 2013 featured interviews with his daughters and some examples of his recent poetry.
A February 2013 interview with James was published in The New Republic, and provides insight about James' approach to educating himself:

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