First, what is it about? I'm not sure even James could answer that one. It's organized by name in an A-Z format, as if it were a reference book about major figures (not the major figures though--Shakespeare doesn't have an entry, for instance) in Western culture. Each entry begins with a page or two about the person, then gives a quotation, and then ends with an essay on the quotation. Sometimes this essay has little to do with the person quoted (the essay on Peter Altenberg, for instance, is mostly about love and sexual attraction, claiming that "love hits with full force straight away" (at least for men), which I find implausible). Sometimes it has a lot to do with the person quoted, and thus feels repetitive of the introductory part of the entry. So sometimes it's a book about quotations, and sometimes it's a book about people. Every fifty pages or so (the book is about 850 pages long) James will mention in passing that such-and-such a book is one that all students should read, or all students of history or literature or whatever should read, as if his aim is to construct a syllabus. He also recommends books in foreign languages that are good for beginners. He tells us how many of these languages he has learned, how many famous people he has met, how many hours he has spent in obscure secondhand bookstores and cafes reading obscure secondhand books, and what editions, with what bindings, he has in his collection. So it's a little bit like reading something called "Why I Read Such Excellent Books."
Except that he never really gets to 'why'. So I find myself wondering what the point of it all is, which is disturbing, because I don't doubt the excellence of the books. It should be obvious why anyone would read them, why everyone ought to read them. But James make me lose sight of this obviousness. Very often the conclusions he draws seem to amount to no more than one or two of the following: this is a really good book; the Nazis were horrible; the Communists were horrible. He claims at one point that most students today don't know who Hitler was. If that were true, then the point of a book like this would be much more evident. But I really don't think it is true. And yet Coetzee has called it: "Aphoristic and acutely provocative: a crash course in civilization." Which makes me wonder whether a crash course is really what one wants when it comes to civilization, and reminds me that one way to be provocative is to annoy.
But I'm not saying that the book is worthless or even bad. The best entries, it has seemed to me so far (I'm on p. 571), are those on Hegel and Lichtenberg. Let me say more about James on Hegel to give you a feel for the book, if nothing else.
Talking about Hegel leads James to Walter Benjamin whose work, James says, contains "moments of explanatory intensity for which the word 'poetry' is hard to withhold, unless we call them philosophy instead" (p. 307). I like that quite a bit. But then on the next page a sentence begins: "Reading Croce day after day in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Florence...," which seems too show-offy to me (I'm putting it mildly). But then he relates Croce's saying that even the flowers have a history, although only they know it, to Shakespeare's lines:
How with such rage shall beauty hold a pleaAnd writes of the connection:
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
These connections between phrases, sentences and lines across time might seem tenuous, but I know nothing more surely than that the collective mentality of humanism is made up of them. They give the mentality of humanism its coherence and independence: two of the characteristics which the totalitarian mechanism always makes it an early business to destroy. [...] In normal times, the aim of scholarship is to bring out the meaning of a seemingly passing remark in its full richness. In dark times, the aim is to confine meaning to a sanctioned path, or eliminate it altogether.And we could connect that with the preface to Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations and its reference to the "darkness of these times," which would be another instance of the kind of free association of possibly related ideas that reading, learning, poetry, and play allow for, that are essential to what James means by humanism, and that neither mechanism nor totalitarianism tolerate. This is what I think James means to celebrate, even while he celebrates his own fortunate life and himself. I'm not sure how good the celebration turns out to be, but it certainly has its moments.