Review: Arguably by Christopher Hitchens

2 comments

Arguably by Christopher Hitchens book cover
Arguably (2011) is a weighty collection of Christopher Hitchens's essays. Spanning a broad range of subjects, the essays are split into six sections and cover topics as wide-ranging as religion and politics to humour and fellatio, drawing from magazine articles, book introductions, and book reviews. The essays swing from iron-hard political polemics to admiring (but never reverent) discussions of literature and the authors on whom Hitchens turned his analytical eye. Unsurprisingly, across the one-hundred plus essays, there are some strong opinions laid out, Hitchens regularly in scathing form but always eloquent in his denouncements.

Hitchens was undoubtedly most (in)famous for his anti-theist writings and debates, but here one gets a much truer sense for the breadth of his interests and the things he loved as well as the things he hated. The essays are drawn mainly from a time when Hitchens was fully immersed in American culture, and there is plenty on the history of the United States to enjoy; Hitchens perhaps offering a clear-eyed assessment and passion that comes most naturally to those who look on hungrily from outside, choosing to participate in a culture rather than being born into it. It is a pity that more of his early writing did not make it into the collection, but nevertheless there is plenty to enjoy here.

Of the things that Hitchens wrote about he had practical or close experience of many, something that cannot be said of all journalists. This adds an air of authenticity to his writing, and throughout there is a reasoned objectivity that lies at the heart of the author's position; he refusing to omit facts that may hurt his case or even move his own position. One might not always agree with Hitchens, but one feels certain of his own conviction.

Hitchens’s prose is staunchly intelligent, his choice of words lacking in all condescension and, rather, challenging the reader's vocabulary to match the author's. As his good friend Martin Amis might put it, Hitchens "refuses to write at a register below which he is capable." This refusal to write in simple English will turn some readers off, and offer a rich and challenging retreat from the commonplace for others. What is certain is that Hitchens's language is always entertaining and he avoids cliché with a fierce revulsion.

There are self-evident comparisons to be drawn with Orwell, one of Hitchens's heroes. Whether these prove valid over the passage of time remains to be seen. Where Hitchens was flamboyant and loquacious Orwell was reserved and plain-speaking but perhaps the greatest difference between the two was the period in which they wrote. Orwell wrote at a time that demanded examination in a way that Hitchens perhaps did not, and no matter how much he emphasised the threat of extremism, there is likely to be less impact long term from his own writing by virtue of the targets he had available to him, magnificent though he was at exposing imposters, tyranny, etc.

To have such a broad collection of Hitchens's writings, albeit drawn mainly from his later years, is a pleasure and readers will almost certainly dip in and out as the mood catches. Orwell described himself as having the "power of facing," a phrase that Hitchens much admired, and perhaps one that might be equally applied to the latter too. If Orwell was the finest essayist of his day then Hitchens may at least lay claim to the same accolade - whether this claim is validated, future generations will decide.

An enjoyable and persuasive pamphlet, perhaps a little short of the humour that so often peppered Hitchens's very serious arguments, but still a powerful, if brief, introduction to the Anti-Monarchy position.


Useful Links
Reviews of Arguably on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Arguably on Amazon (US)

You Might Also Enjoy... 

Review: God is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens
God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007) is Christopher Hitchens's vitriolic attack on organised religion, which, in his own inimitable style, he argues, is ignorant, intolerant, and detrimental to the progress of culture and... [Read More]
Review: Mortality by Christopher Hitchens
Mortality (2012) is a slim volume: the final essays that the inimitable Christopher Hitchens wrote for Vanity Fair alongside a handful of unpublished jottings. Few have written about “living dyingly” so boldly or so honestly, and Hitchens springs nimbly... [Read More]
Review: The Monarchy by Christopher Hitchens
The Monarchy: A Critique of Britain's Favourite Fetish (1990) is an extended essay by polemicist Christopher Hitchens in which he debunks the myths surrounding the Sovereign and argues persuasively for a re-evaluation of the United Kingdom's... [Read More]

2 comments:

Heather said...

I received this as a gift for my birthday last September, but haven't cracked it open yet. I plan on doing that soon. I'll come back and read your review in detail when I'm done reading the book. :)

Matthew Selwyn said...

Hope you enjoy it Heather - it's almost impossible to review a collection this size but I definitely recommend it. There's a lot of good reading in there (as you might expect if you've followed Hitchens at all).