Book Review: Arguably, by Christopher Hitchens

I have a penchant for big books. At the present moment, I’m trying to prepare for a very hard job assessment interview by reading a whole textbook on social research methods, at the same time I am reading a book by Anthony (‘AC’) Grayling which is also a large book, but according to the cover of the book (and the title), its not just a big book, it’s “The Good Book”, talk about self-publicity. Because I surround myself purposely with difficult things: big books; books on scientific method; books written by Adorno; black metal, or trying to learn badminton with a motor skills disability, I make an effort to lighten up my life from time to time. I enjoy a good laugh, I enjoy children’s literature, I act like a child. This is usually a way of making myself seem more accessible to people, if they really knew that I was thinking about the importance of despair, or whether Hermann Cohen and Ernst Cassirer uphold Kantian tradition, I don’t think people can really peer inside.

Why have I just written a paragraph about myself in what is titled a book review for Christopher Hitchens? It is my ode to the man. A good essay should start with a preamble, an academic essay should start with ‘In this essay I shall do x,y,z which relates to systematic concerns a,b,c’. Hitchens writes in the former style, for a man who reads things of the former. Hitchens is a man of diverse personality and immensely wide interests. Hitchens consistently writes in a personable manner and shows humour that is unexpected and pathos in things we so easily wish to forget.

Hitchens’ series of Essays in this publication, released earlier this year (perhaps the most ‘newest’ book I’ve read that’s worth blogging about), are on a variety of subjects, most are from various publications such as Vanity Fair, Slate Magazine and The Nation, and most are within the past decade. Many of the topics are contemporary, such as the use of words such as ‘like’ or ‘y’know’ which are filler words taking place in sentences. When I find Guardian Journalists such as Jess Cartner-Morley and politicians even as eminent as the Prime Minister using such filler sentences, I know that a cultural epidemic is taking place. A great essay is one which makes one so self conscious they look over their back, or in the mirror, to become more self aware. I personally am, like, y’know, trying to sort of, kinda get rid of, y’know, the filler words that I over use, really.

Hitchens should not be typified as one of the ‘Four Horsemen’, or the archetype of ‘New Atheists’. This would undermine the breadth of his work. Perhaps notably, few of his essays address the typical subjects he embraces in his public talks on the evils of religion or from his book ‘God is Not Great’. This is a good thing, it’s terrible to repeat your ideas (note to self, keep this one in mind). Hitchens reveals a more nuanced appreciation of the Arab world in this anthology, as he addresses many of his experiences in countries such as Tunisia, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. There is a level of liberalism and sophistication in many of these countries which is ignored by the mainstream media. Hitchens addresses the side effects of war through his book reviews on figures such as Rebecca West, events during the inter-war years, and a very powerful essay on the consequences of ‘Agent Orange’ in Vietnam. Hitchens addresses subjects of great gravitas, many of which are often ignored.

Some subjects couldn’t be more contemporary, One essay on the Eurozone crisis (written in 2010) may well have been written a fortnight ago. Hitchens addresses issues relating to EU diplomacy and tensions in this political communion. I tend to read the author as more British than American, but Hitchens is very apt at speaking from a US point of view as well. I forget (perhaps too easily) that Hitchens predominantly writes for a North American audience. Hitchens displays familiarity with many of the literary greats of the 20th Century, from his visit to see author V.S Naipaul, to a review on J.G. Ballard, as wll as his numerous allusions to Gore Vidal (a man who is often compared with Hitchens) and Martin Amis. Hitchens is a man with many famous friends. This is evidenced by an evend held this month at the London Southbank, which celebrated the life and work of Christopher Hitchens (Hitchens was set to attend but became suddenly unwell prior to the event).

One forgets too easily that Hitchens, before he became the fanboy object of many a ‘New Atheist’, was a journalist for his bread and butter, who observed on many foreign affairs. One theme prevalent in this anthology is the cultural role of a ‘hack’ in the modern world. Hitchens addresses the numerous views on how ‘inferior’ the journalist is in comparison to the historian, or the poet. Hitchens rightly points out how the public intellectual at least in perception, varies significantly from the journalist, yet despite the criticism to what is his bread-and-butter profession, Hitchens shows by example that one can be a journalist as well as an intellectual. I think that one day, Librivox will release an edition of Hitchens’ ‘Arguably’ and future people will see it in the same way I would see a collection of essays by George Orwell, another journalist of merit. It will be a work of historical importance, successfully capturing the zeitgeist of what was the Noughties generation; a baby-boomer and gen x, y generation; what life was like during the early internet age. Hitchens made art out of the internet newspaper, it may be true that online ‘publications’ are mostly full of things that will easily be forgotten over the decades, but buried in all that shit are a few gems of authorship. Gems such as the work of Christopher Hitchens.

The anthology was written, if I am to believe the introduction, at the urgency of keeping active. As many readers may know, Christopher Hitchens is enduring oesophageal cancer. Hitchens addresses his condition briefly and in his candour, admits that his writing and public engagements are the one thing that keep him going. Knowing that his death is immanent, it is as if he writes now (or perhaps better said, he reads now) as if her is already a dead man.

As a closing remark, I recommend anyone whether reading the book or not, who is not squeamish about matters sexual, to read the insightful, humourous and profoundly unusual essay ‘As American as Apple Pie’. To put it crudely, it’s about blowjobs.I can’t imagine George Orwell or Gore Vidal writing about such a subject!

Michael

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