(Note to readers of this blog: one of the things you need to take into consideration when working at a bookshop is that when recommending a book, you don't necessarily choose the book you think best, but the one you think the customer most likely wants or needs to read. Readers of this blog are certainly invited to read the book discussed below, but were I recommending a title to this more sophisticated audience, I would choose either Fadiman or Judt, both of whom are operating at the same level as James, but wear their intellect more lightly. And to those who enjoy browsing in second-hand bookshops I also recommend Edmund White's marvellous The Burning Library. Not only does it feature some great criticism and analysis, but White's interview with Burroughs has the effect of confirming once and for all that, yes, Burroughs really was that weird.)
Book Choice: Cultural Amnesia by Clive James:
I seem to have become addicted to reading collections of essays recently, and of the choice available to you in our store, this is the one I would recommend. That doesnt necessarily mean it is the best; Anne Fadiman's At Large and At Small and the new selection of essays from Gore Vidal, along with Tony Judt's Reappraisals are all equally valid contenders to that title. That Cultural Amnesia gets the nod is by virtue of the sheer heft of the volume: it is an absolute doorstop of a book and could easily act as a lethal bludgeoning weapon should the need arise. The length of the book alone cannot be enough to make it the best, of course: what does is the very readable style in which it is written and the sheer number of now-forgotten thinkers, writers, artists and intellectuals it introduces the reder to, while also providing fresh perspectives on well-known figures.
Some have argued that the style is too digressive, but I think this actually adds to the book's charm: like a good jazz musician, it's fun to watch where James can wind up when he starts riffing on the epigrams from other writers with which he begins each chapter (in one absolutely jaw-dropping essay, he manages to go from writing about Arthur Schnitzler to delivering a long and detailed critique of Richard Burton's hairstyle in Where Eagles Dare, and back again). A more serious criticism is that his habit of constantly reminding us that he's read so many difficult foreign authors in their original language, even when done with self-deprecating modesty, does get irritating after a while; but one has to admit that there is something a little petty in that complaint. If he's put in the hours with the dictionaries, who are we to begrudge him a small chance to show off? After all, if he hadn't, the book would probably have been half as long and ten times less interesting. My advice is to get this first, then read the other books listed, and then join me in twiddling your thumbs and waiting impatiently for Daniel Mendelsohn's How Beautiful it is and How Easily it can be Broken to arrive in this store.
(thanks to Simon Gallagher for tidying up some of the clumsier sentences in the above)