Essayist Christopher Hitchens ruminates on why Charles Dickens was among the best of writers and the worst of men, the haunting science fiction of J.G. Ballard, the enduring legacies of Thomas Jefferson and George Orwell, the persistent agonies of anti-Semitism and jihad, the enduring relevance of Karl Marx, and how politics justifies itself by culture--and how the latter prompts the former.
Arguably is a collection of essays, most from his is recent outlets: Vanity Fair, Atlantic, and Slate. Many of these essays are book reviews -- but reviews unlike any I've read before. They are essays based upon the book, and not a traditional critique. Hitchens is able to interject his own knowledge on a variety of subjects ranging from the ancient to the modern. His Slate pieces tend to be more op-ed in nature, dealing with modern issues (often of political or philosophic/religious nature), drawing both upon research and first-hand experience as a gonzo journalist in some of the world's political hot spots/hell holes dating back to the late 60's.
Hitchens is at his best when attacking the duplicity of religious fundamentalism or it's insidious relative, political misdirection. He is most amusing when discussing modern idioms in an almost Andy Rooney-like manner (I think he'd make a great replacement for Rooney if his health permitted). And, of course, there are always things I don't care about despite his best efforts: 20th century English lit notables such as Graeme Greene and Evelyn Waugh, among others. With the exception of aging standby such as Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man or Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, my fiction reading rarely extends to socially significant literature.
My favorite essays in this book were some of his historical book reviews. In particular, several that talk about our Founding Fathers and Thomas Jefferson in particular. Hitchens, a Socialist-turned-Republican, ruthlessly attacks the revisionist history his party has been spouting lately regarding the separation of church and state. Yes, they did mean what they said; there was no underlying intent that we become a Christian state. The United States was always meant to be a secular haven for people of all religion, and the government is to play no active role in promoting any religious ideology in particular.
The Republican Party needs candidates with Hitchens' wherewithal. While Hitchens also does not hold back in his criticism of Democratic party ideals, the mere fact that the Republican Party is misrepresenting history (as well as embracing ignorance and eschewing scientific findings) remains an insurmountable obstacle that keeps me firmly on the left today. Given his social and religious views, his choice of parties still seems rather perplexing.
As a collection it’s an excellent introduction to Hitchens, his style and his favoured subjects. The opening section’s dedicated to his fascination with America, the second to literature, others to international politics and the English language and one more to his more provocative pieces – in this last section, alongside rages at the annoyances of modern life and the British Royal family there’s his infamous piece on Why Women Aren’t Funny. It’s admittedly chauvinistic but also clearly tongue in cheek at times. And as ever, you can’t help but be impressed by his style, the breadth of reference and willingness to investigate the more dangerous areas of the world to see if the picture we’re drawing from afar is accurate – in here are pieces about Afghanistan and the modern use of torture as practised by the US.
There’s the usual downside with Hitchens that he can often come across as arrogant and condescending, with attitudes very much shaped by the English public school system. It’s always backed up by the application of hard thought though and willingness to follow a line of argument, no matter how unappealing the logical conclusions. At no point does the cancer which ended his life impinge on his work, neither in subject nor in the evident vitality of his writing (though this is dealt with in the short collection Mortality). A beautifully selected collection which sums up a writer cut down in what still appeared to be his prime. It’s a great shame that the conversations with Hitchens will now always be one way now.
As a collection of essays, this compendium is way too long. That's the only strike against Arguably.
One complaint people had about Christopher Hitchens was that he was inconsistent in that he didn't jump with both feet into one of those camps. He was an atheist and a neocon. He thought George W. Bush was an over-privileged ninny. He was not "culturally sensitive" enough to suffer Islamic extremists gladly. He was a man of the left who often sided with the right. Was he inconsistent? No. He was a rigorous thinker. He was an Englishman who, late in life, became an American citizen and who was a scholar of the Founding Fathers.
You know, in these days of shorthand thinking, everyone should go out and buy this man's books and read them. Not quickly, as you read a thriller, but slowly, closely, and intently. Parse his sentences. Grok him in fulness. As a result, you may be inspired not to take what you're handed at face value. Do your own investigations. Make up your own mind based on the best available information. Read and learn constantly. Be willing to admit you were wrong when it becomes apparent that you are.
LISTEN! READ! INVESTIGATE! OBSERVE! THINK! LEARN TO FORMULATE AND ARTICULATE COMPLEX IDEAS! We seem to be losing the power to do all these things, and Hitchens sets a great example. Don't let people simplify him as an atheist or as a neocon. He was so much more than either of these things.
And sometimes he will make you laugh. Deep, rich belly laughs of absurdity and irony.
I must read more.
Comes in a bit short at a page shy of 750. I'd love to talk more with this man, fiery and funny as he may be.
In 'Arguably' Hitchens proves inarguably to have been one of the greatest journalists and writers that the modern world has produced. Each and every one of these articles is worth the time it takes to read them. Another reviewer has complained of the breadth and depth of Hitchens's quotations, that to read one book review one must first have read half of the last century's literature, but this raises two points: why would one not want to have read the best that civilisation has produced? and; does it really get in the way when Hitchens quote Auden or Orwell to make his point clearer?
To the first question, I would say that answering it is getting expensive: I kept a notepad and pen at my side as I read, noting down useful new items of vocabulary (unctuous, synecdoche, esurient) and also the names of the writers he mentions. I did the same with 'Hitch-22' and it has come close to bankrupting me, but I did it happily and feel enriched. I only wish I could get a closer look at the books on his bookshelves, sadly soft-focussed on the cover of this beautiful volume.
As for the second question; well, for the next six months of my still nascent writing career I imagine I will do everything I can to emulate - nay, copy - Hitchens's writing style, trying along the way to draw together a million different influences and facts and factoids to make a more compelling narrative. Well, one has to start from somewhere, and at least I already sign my name 'Christopher'.
As much as I enjoy him, I’m extremely wary of his fans, who make me very nervous. He’s perhaps the author I’m least likely to read outside of my home, for fear that someone will see the cover and want to talk about it. No thank you.
This is the first book of Hitchens that I have read and I was amazed by his breadth of knowledge and his capacity for clear succinct writing. Not simple writing - I don't think any other book has sent me to the dictionary so often.
I expected more polemic, but he is very reasoned and doesn't take too many extreme positions. Of course, you get to know his world view, and you are free to disagree, but I wouldn't have wanted to ever enter into a battle of wits with this master.
Read Jan/Feb 2017.