Review: Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens

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Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens
Letters to a Young Contrarian (2001) is Christopher Hitchens’s epistolic guide to living the life of contrarian – a term he doesn’t wholly endorse – and questioning ‘accepted wisdom’, battling out lazy thinking, and standing up against the majority when one is in the right. Loosely modelled – at the bequest of the publisher – on Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, it’s a guidebook for those who seek – in Hitchens’s words – the “unfashionable goal” of making the world a better place, and decrying prejudice and injustice wherever one finds it.

Hitchens is sober in his assessment of the life of a contrarian, and makes clear that it is neither glamorous, nor likely to win many friends. He promotes not the idea of becoming a role model, world changing maverick, or anything so grand, but rather settles on the idea that to be a contrarian one must examine one’s beliefs constantly and press always towards justice within oneself and within society, while standing firm against the risk of apathy and dullness. Imbuing one’s arguments with humour, he decides, will help to keep them fresh, and rehearsing points in a dialectic with those of opposing views will only help hone them, but ultimately, one must be prepared to refine, repeat, and labour a point, if it is one worth supporting. For Hitchens the biggest failing to be avoided is that of silence.

That said, for Hitchens, what is important is how one thinks rather than what one thinks. Naturally, the inference is that thinking in the right way leads one to correct positions more often than not, although as Hitchens elsewhere acknowledges, sometimes, “the wrong people have the right line,” and vice versa.

Like Orwell, Hitchens synthesizes what he deems valuable from the left and right – to use rigid definitions – and his rejection of all unthinking forms of political tribalism mean Hitchens offers a balanced approach to reasoning out one’s own position. As someone who’s lived a full life, he cannot help but drop in plenty of autobiographical tidbits, which illustrate his points while ensuring his own ego is suitably stroked, in a form which leaves very little room for modesty. Hitchens, though, is a great example for the aspiring intellectual / contrarian, and the congruence between his life and his writing makes his example all the stronger.

Where much of Hitchens's writing is focused on puncturing the ill-gotten (in his view) reputation of individuals and institutions he abhors, here one sees the nurturing side of Hitchens, as he encourages to the next generation of free thinkers and reassures them of the merit of a life of opposition. The very notion of writing a book that asks the reader to challenge proffered wisdoms creates a paradox of sorts, but Hitchens is more than aware of this, and mindful of it. Indeed, he writes with his familiar flair and good humour, and one forgives very quickly any moments that slip into self-satisfaction. As a man of consummate self-assuredness this can be a fine line, and one certainly would have liked to see a little more of the vulnerable side of Hitchens here – a further reassurance that even battle hardened contrarians have their weaknesses.

Any quibbles, however, are minor to say the least and one cannot help but read with eagerness and - ironically - submission, such a neatly crafted work. Indeed, in an already short book, having each missive contained within a chapter makes for very easy reading, and pleasing bursts of bite-sized encouragement / discussion. In view of its brevity, Hitchens is careful to ensure the book is sprinkled with references for further reading, which will undoubtedly pique the reader’s interest and turn them – if they are yet to be turned – onto the pleasures (or otherwise) of Zola, Rilke, Orwell, and Heller amongst others.

Hitchens’s writing on the mechanics of his thinking are amongst his most valuable, and this is no different. It’s a short, affirmative blast from a comrade and deep thinker no longer with us, and it is the encouragement that many developing minds need: The life of an independent thinker can be a lonely one, a reassuring arm around the shoulder, albeit in prose form, will, no doubt, be welcome to many. For the aspiring contrarian then, this is an excellent guide to be a thinking dissident to the mainstream. Eschew apathy and complacency says Hitchens, and who can argue with that?

This is a good, light look at what it means to live in opposition to accepted view of things, and Hitchens is a great and persuasive mentor for any would-be contrarian.


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Reviews of Letters to a Young Contrarian on Amazon (UK)
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