Key Points:

The gigantic paradox of this book (and paradox in miniature is something Clive James loves) is that it is a text for liberal humanists for whom there can be no text because liberal humanists are always floating, queasily, in doubt. So how does he achieve this? Liberalism, he says, is the awkward truth, the messy one that is hard to defend because it is so nuanced, whereas ideologies are barbed with certain-ties. He illustrates those nuances.

I revelled in Cultural Amnesia, its surprises, its complexities, the diversity of its topics, its insouciant seriousness.

What is remarkable is that although James has an array of rhetorical weapons, he shows no malice, no desire to kill off his intellectual enemies. He has views on just about everything and everyone but never gives in to anger or bitterness, firm in his belief that liberal democracy may not be perfect but it is the best deal going, despite the awfulness of materialism and its consequences, including the absurdity of celebrity worship.

I thought of this recently when I picked up a book by Charlotte Dawson with its risible blurb describing her as "an all-round media goddess".

He gets close to assault and battery when writing on Margaret Thatcher but in the end gives her her due for, among other things, her handling of the end of British Hong Kong. He does have one villain, though: Jean-Paul Sartre, whom he witheringly dismisses as a fraud with an amoral intelligence and, like Robespierre, "an awful purity".

Picking your way through the 108 essays and only a dullard would start at the beginning and hold course does, eventually, reveal the theme of liberal humanism, even though the author insists there is no theme and lists his pieces alphabetically, under the subject name.

His regard for the mild maverick the one who holds the middle ground with integrity, usually under fire from both sides never wavers, which makes him as suspicious of liberal fads and fashions as any conservative. You can tell an ideologue by the timbre of his voice. It rings with certainty, whereas the liberal humanist knows that every day brings moral dilemmas to be dealt with one by one.

At a time when education has been pulled into a disastrous alliance with commerce as God and Mammon take on the same shape, it is refreshing to read in his introductory essay: "It has always been part of the definition of humanism that true learning has no end in view except its own furtherance."

And: "... the beginning of under-standing more is to realise that there is more than can be understood."

He writes with warmth and conviction about the brilliant period of four decades in Vienna before World War II when a group of intellectuals, mainly Jewish, flourished in a cafe culture because they were denied the opportunity of wasting their energies on compiling abstruse doctoral theses, because universities discriminated against them. They were driven instead to journalism, plain speech, direct observation and the necessity to entertain [which] could sometimes be the enemy of learning, but not as often as the deadly freedom to write as if nobody would ever read the result except a faculty supervisor.

Anyone who can write with equal facility and insight essays on Louis Armstrong and Franz Kafka, as well as Miles Davis, W. C. Fields, Federico Fellini, Gustav Flaubert, Sigmund Freud, William Hazlitt, Beatrix Potter and Tony Curtis has clearly touched about all the bases on his way through modern life. Be prepared for delightful surprises.

The piece on Argentinean artist Ernesto Sobata is really about the tango, the one on Sir Thomas Browne is about book titles and the one on Austrian playwright and novelist Arthur Schnitzler is as much a laugh-aloud account of Richard Burton's hairstyle in the movie Where Eagles Dare as anything else.

James range of interests is immense and his critical approach to culture disregards the high and low labels. He is a great public intellectual, not infected by the hubris of Christopher Hitchens. If he has a fault it is that he will sometimes try to surprise for the sake of surprise and garble an argument to get off a droll line.

I believe it is impossible to understand the 20th century without reading George Orwell, and this very big book, which James implies is his life's major work, would make an admirable Orwell companion.

* Picador, $60

- Canvas