Book Notes: Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens

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Update: Reposted in memory of Christopher Hitchens, who passed away yesterday, December 15, 2011. A fine way to remember Hitch would be to listen to the audio version of this book, which he read himself.

It is, of course, nothing more than chance that the day after I finish Christopher Hitchens’ memoir Hitch-22, I come across this statement on the Vanity Fair web site:

I have been advised by my physician that I must undergo a course of chemotherapy on my esophagus. This advice seems persuasive to me. I regret having had to cancel so many engagements at such short notice.

(The engagements he mentions refer to his book tour.)

Ah, Hitch, all that smoking and drinking is catching up to you. Let’s hope you win this battle.

But on to the book. If you don’t know Christopher Hitchens, he’s a polemicist, contrarian, journalist and defender of human rights. He’s been everywhere, from Cuba as a your revolutionary to Afghanistan as a reporter covering the recent war. He’s been to Iraq, both before and during the war, to India, covering the “case” of Mother Theresa, and to Bosnia as the hostilities started. He likes to claim that he’s the only writer to have been to all three countries that make up the “axis of evil”: Iran, Iraq, and North Korea.

This “memoir” is a loose collection of recollections and essays that give an overview of his life as a politically engaged journalist. Many people first heard about Hitchens a couple of years ago when his book God is Not Great was released. Hitchens went on a “crusade” to show how “religion poisons everything” and was involved in numerous debates (all polite and friendly) with religious figures around the US and UK. Unlike other “new atheists,” Hitchens is rather aggressive in both his beliefs (or lack thereof) and his argumentation. He pulls no punches, and this can be seen in most of his writing, and in this memoir.

Hitchens has been scorned by the left for undergoing many changes in his political beliefs over the years, starting out as a Troskyist, and ending up, as he says in the last chapter of Hitch-22, a “skeptic,” far more willing to look at multiple ideas than to accept the tenets of a party or group. This has led him to famously support the Bush war in Iraq, though, as he points out in the book, he was for the war long before it became a war. Together with a small group of human rights activists, after seeing what Saddam Hussein’s regime was doing to Iraqis, he fought for regime change in Washington. His literary friends include Martin Amis, Ian McEwen, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, James Fenton and many others.

Hitchens was born in the UK but became American after 9/11, having lived in the US since the early 1980s. He writes for a number of magazines, having run the gauntlet of left-leaning (and leftist periodicals), long writing for The Nation, and now a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and a regular contributor to The Atlantic, Slate and other publications.

What impresses me most about Hitchens is the quality of his writing. He has acerbic wit, and his sentences sparkle. His arguments are very convincing (even if you don’t always agree with him, which can be difficult), and he pulls no punches. This memoir is 100% Hitchens: from the descriptions of his days in school to the present, he tells it like it is (or was), with a style that glitters.

I listened to the audiobook version of this work, read by Hitchens himself. While I wouldn’t classify this as an excellent reading – Hitchens takes commas for periods, and this makes the reading a bit fragmented – hearing him tell his story in his own voice was worth the price of admission.

If you want an interesting read about politics, growing up, literary circles, and plain old contrarianism, Hitch-22 is a great book. You may not agree with all of Hitchens’ opinions, but at least he’s committed to them and presents them without waffling. Would that we had more political journalists willing to write like Hitch.

There’s a very moving interview about the book, but where Hitch also discusses his cancer, death and mortality, from the Charlie Rose Show.

You might also want to read Arguably, a huge collection of essays by Hitchens, published in 2011.