I’m somewhat ashamed to admit this: before this week, I had never sat down and read anything by Christopher Hitchens. I knew who he was, as his name frequently pops up in books of contemporary philosophy, and also because he and Martin Amis were so frequently mentioned in the same breath by journalists and critics. Then, sadly, Christopher Hitchens passed away on Dec. 15th, and I thought to myself, I should have read his work earlier. To try and make amends for that oversight on my part, I went to my local Barnes and Noble to pick up a book by him. That’s when I found out something unsettling. A lot of people were doing the same thing I was: reading Christopher Hitchens’ work after his obit appeared. Apparently, this was so common that Barnes and Noble capitalized on this by making his books as visible as possible on the shelves. I now think to myself that if anyone could incisively point out exactly why the commercialization of death is shameful and tacky… it would be Christopher Hitchens.
I also noticed that suddenly all of his books had been checked out at the library. For a moment I thought to myself, if Christopher Hitchens were looking down from heaven right now… But no, I won’t complete that thought. Christopher Hitchens was the type of individual I would like to call devoutly atheist. I also caught myself thinking, ‘if given the opportunity, would I go back in time and tell Christopher Hitchens to stop smoking and prolong his life?’ He died of esophagal cancer. To be honest, I probably would, although I know already Christopher would say firmly “No.” That’s what made him great. His ability to say no.
Letters to a Young Contrarian is all about the fine art of saying “no.” It’s very loosely modeled after Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, but in a much more contemporary style. In this brief book (about 150 pages) Christopher Hitchens explains how and why to effectively say no to prejudice, cruelty, and bigotry in all its forms, from despotism to religious fanaticism.
Reading Christopher Hitchens work reminded me of reading the movie reviews of Pauline Kael; in both cases, I found myself frequently disagreeing with their opinions but found them to be complete geniuses nonetheless. Genius isn’t an accolade I throw around either. For instance, I have tried reading a book by Ann Coulter and found that I disagreed with every single sentence of the first page of her book, and there’s no way I would call her a genius (or Bill O’Reilly, Glen Beck, etc.). I was quite unprepared for Hitchens’ constant bashing of Bill Clinton. Coming of age during 8 years of President George W. Bush made me quite nostalgic for Clinton, but Hitchens, who caused quite a controversy by supporting the Iraq War despite his liberal reputation, would probably say I was looking at the past with rosy colored glasses.
Christopher Hitchens described himself as someone who would not only argue with a world leader but argue with his friends and family. Letters to a Young Contrarian urges readers to do the same, using the line of logic that by allowing your friends to maintain their irrational beliefs you are in effect not being much of a friend at all.
Throughout the book, he makes a handful of oblique references to major political events he was directly involved in, such as the struggle against Apartheid and the canonisation of Mother Theresa. It makes for a thrilling read. As soon as possible, I would like to read his memoir Hitch-22. The thing I would like to point out is that, even if Christopher Hitchens had never ventured beyond his front door, on the strength of his writing alone he could be considered one of the great minds of his generation, and for that reason, and a plethora more, he will be sorely missed.
—-I have written two books of fiction. One is titled The Madness of Art: Short Stories, and the other is called A Rapturous Occasion. Both are available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble in paperback and as an ebook. To find out more, please visit my Amazon author page.
I would highly recommend Letters to A Young Contrarian. It was an inspiring and enjoyable book. It’s also one you can read quickly. I finished it in 2 days. If you like Letters to a Young Contrarian, you might also find Simulacra and Simulation to be interesting, although Jean Baudrillard is nowhere near as readable or witty as Christopher Hitchens.