I can say unequivocally that I learned more reading this book than in any class in high school, college, or elsewhere, or from any other book – textbook or other. Not just the cold, hard facts of history – though there are plenty of dates, places and instances of that sort of learning here. More psychological, humanistic, “how does this happen?” sort of revelations than concretized, unassailable, facts and figures, which are often so much more revealing.

I found this hardback on the sale table in the local bookstore almost ten years ago, and it’s easily the best $5 or so I’ve ever spent. It would have seemed a bargain at ten times the price.

Clive James is a true polymath, possibly the last. Extensive writing in the realms of TV and literary criticism, fiction, poetry, theater, and music allowed him to collect a menagerie of friends and collaborators that crossed generations, styles and genres, and much about that sort of lifestyle is revealed in this collection of mini-biographies.

Its premise is a familiar one with older and getting-older generations: “kids today aren’t learning what we did!” In other words, what they “should be learning” about in order to prevent Cultural Amnesia from negatively affecting society as a whole. In an effort to correct that perceived oversight, these 106 essays cover historical figures both well known and nearly obscure. There were so many with which I was unfamiliar that I made it a point of reading those before getting his thoughts on the people I recognized.

James was (and presumably still is) a practitioner of marginalia – making notes right in the book you’re reading, in the margins near the line or lines that prompted the note. While fascinating to look back on, and invaluable to him when going back through his voluminous library in preparing this tome, I was never really a big fan of marginalia, probably because I (falsely, in most cases) assumed the written work was sacrosanct, and should not be tainted by my lowly side notes.

The result is that when describing these influential people to us – again, some very well known but many only one dimensionally – he could rely on whatever insights and epiphanies may have exploded across his awareness when he was first reading about them, in most cases many years before, as a young and impressionable – and obviously highly intelligent and empathic – student and artist.

Perhaps because he felt so gypped by the Universe (his father, having survived WWII as a Japanese prisoner of war only to be killed when the plane carrying him back to his family in Australia crashed in Manila Bay) much of the focus in this book is centered on the World War II years and how that period truly impacted the entire world. I knew, for instance, though only vaguely, that Vienna, Austria was a hotbed of modern art, literature, poetry, music, philosophy, and general enlightenment prior to the War and the inevitable Aunschluss, but I didn’t know that so many of that modern Renaissance’s participants saw it coming and (correctly, it turned out) despaired, some to the point of throwing themselves out of high windows at the sight of the Nazis marching through the streets. Powerful stuff.

Nor did I know that people famous during and after the War were so cozily attached to their occupiers during its darkest years. There was definitely a feel in reading about it, and I’m sure even more so in living through it, that going along to get along very literally meant the difference between life or death, but to read about personages like Coco Chanel being so involved in the Nazi night life and hobnobbing with the most influential (and therefore most safe?) of their leadership in Paris was eye opening. From what I understand, despite her and others’ vehement denials, their true loyalties were never fully established. (Though, if you prefer your insight into the true Big Bad of the that or any century to be more direct, there are fascinating pieces on Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler, as well.)

Other bits are much lighter yet no less enlightening. James’ fascination with and reverence of the Tango is almost like a religious ecstasy, and his portraits of musicians like Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and Duke Ellington; writers such as Walter Benjamin, Jorge Luis Borges, Albert Camus, John Keats, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others; and Movie and TV personalities as wide-ranging as Charlie Chaplin, Dick Cavett, Tony Curtis, and Terry Gilliam, all provide insights into their psyches that, heretofore, have often been overshadowed by their achievements and the time-wearing polish of lasting fame.

Can’t say enough about this one. Great for keeping on the nightstand or coffee table for that 20 or 30 minute window that may present itself between daily requirements and which can serve to educate and entertain like, perhaps, nothing else can in this modern, too forgetful world.


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