The New York Times reviews the new Hitchens book

September 12, 2011 • 12:11 pm

I hadn’t realized that Christopher Hitchens had a new book, even though it was reviewed in the same issue of the Sunday NYT that contained my own review of D. S. Wilson’s book.  At any rate, Hitchens’ latest is a collection of essays called Arguably, and you can get it for $18 from Amazon, where it’s already at #26.    I’ll be reading it for sure, as I have read all of his other four essay-books.

Bill Keller, a writer for the paper, gives it a thumbs up, though he faults some of the book for smugness and haughtiness, particularly in Hitchens’ infamous (and unfortunate) Vanity Fair piece, “Why women aren’t funny,” which explains a supposed gender disparity in humor as a result of sexual selection.

Let’s begin with the obvious. He is unfathomably prolific. “Arguably” is a great ingot of a book, more than 780 pages containing 107 essays. Some of them entailed extensive travel in inconvenient places like Afghanistan and Uganda and Iran; those that are more in the way of armchair punditry come from an armchair within reach of a very well-used library. They appeared in various publications during a period in which he also published his best-selling exegesis against religion, “God Is Not Great”; a short and well-­reviewed biography of Thomas Jefferson; a memoir, “Hitch-22”; as well as various debates, reading guides, letters and rebuttals — all done while consuming daily quantities of alcoholic drink that would cripple most people. As Ian Parker noted in his definitive 2006 New Yorker profile of Hitchens, the man writes as fast as some people read.

The second notable thing about Hitchens is his erudition. He doesn’t always wear it lightly — more than once he remarks, upon pulling out a classic for reconsideration, that he first read the work in question when he was 12 — but it is not just a parlor trick. In the book reviews that make up much of this collection, the most ambitious of them written for The Atlantic, he takes the assigned volume — a new literary biography of Stephen Spender or Graham Greene or Somerset Maugham, or a new collection of letters by Philip Larkin or Jessica Mitford — and uses it as pretext to review, with opinionated insights, the entire life and work of the writer in question, often supplementing his prodigious memory by rereading several books. He is a master of the essay that not only spares you the trouble of reading the book under review, but leaves you feeling you have just completed an invigorating graduate seminar.

This is not one of the better reviews I’ve read in the NYT; it leaps from topic to topic and, like Winston Churchill’s famous pudding, “lacks a theme.” But of course it’s always difficult to review books of essays.  And, although Keller admits frankly that Hitchens is dying (the first time I’ve seen this statement nakedly in print, and the accompanying photo, below, supports the claim), at  least he pays homage to Hitch’s godlessness:

If there is a God, and he lacks a sense of irony, he will send Hitchens to the hottest precinct of hell. If God does have a sense of irony, Hitchens will spend eternity in a town that serves no liquor and has no library. Either way, heaven will be a less interesting place.

Photo by Brooks Kraft/Corbis

35 thoughts on “The New York Times reviews the new Hitchens book

  1. on the Review:

    “You will notice that it lacks definiteness; that it lacks purpose; that it lacks coherence; that it lacks a subject to talk about; that it is loose and wabbly; that it wanders around; that it loses itself early and does not find itself any more.” –Mark Twain

  2. …Keller admits frankly that Hitchens is dying (the first time I’ve seen this statement nakedly in print,…

    Well, Hitchens has said that himself on several occasions at the debates he was doing after his diagnosis: “I’m dying, thank you for asking. But so are you…”

  3. If God does have a sense of irony, Hitchens will spend eternity in a town that serves no liquor and has no library.

    This was good though!

      1. …heaven for climate, and hell for society.
        – Mark Twain’s Speechs, 1910 edition, p. 117.

        Dying man couldn’t make up his mind which place to go to — both have their advantages, “heaven for climate, hell for company!”
        – Mark Twain’s Notebooks and Journals, vol. 3

  4. Christopher Hitchens. His name now summons upon my mind a kaleidoscopic variety of attributes:
    eloquence, articulacy, confidence, sarcasm, erudition, and quite often, unfettered hilarity.

    It must be one of the most difficult or otherwise hopeless of human endeavors that of finding a man of his likeness in our times. A man who excels at all these qualities and still finds himself able to be pleasant and enjoyable. Hitch, I feel lucky to be your contemporary.

  5. It’s not controversial that the females pick the males — the peacock’s tail, the asymmetrical investment in offspring, etc. The question is whether the human animal is somehow different from other animals in this regard. Perhaps several thousand years of cultural evolution have changed us, but by how much, really? “What about funny women?” or “What about dull men?” is beside the point. There’s a spectrum of funny/unfunny, and the issue is where the median lies.

    It’s obvious to me that human males need to “perform” in some way to impress women, while the reverse is less necessary. In any case I was surprised by the backlash of the Hitchens article about this. Even if the median male is funner than the median female, so what? Females have their own strengths; for example having less stupid-decision-inducing testosterone should count for something.

    1. Some people don’t care about how reasonable a hypothesis is. If it claims any difference in the capabilities of the average man and average woman, it’s taboo.

      I have yet to see a single piece of criticism of that article which doesn’t completely misrepresent what he says in it, even that of Tina Fey in her book (which I enjoyed overall), who I would expect better from.

      The claim that men, on average, are funnier than women, on average – because funny men have had more children, on average – is something that is either true or false. It is not a claim open to accusations of sexism from any reasonable person.

      1. I don’t see how you get from “this claim is either true or false” to “it is not open to accusations of sexism”. The following claims are also either true or false, and are also empirically checkable: “Black people are almost invariably much less intelligent than white people”; “The Jews kidnap Christian children and use their blood in their religious rituals”. Someone advancing either of those theses would be accused of prejudice, and quite right too.

        Now, of course “women are generally less funny than men” is a less serious accusation than either of those, and less demonstrably false; and in any case it hasn’t (so far as I know) been carefully tested. I think *those* are the factors that make it weaker grounds for accusations of prejudice, not the mere fact that it’s an empirically testable proposition.

        1. The claim “black people are almost invariably much less intelligent than white people” is not a racist statement. I think it’s obviously false, but not racist. What’s racist? Saying this:

          “Black people are almost invariably much less intelligent than white people, therefore white people should [be permitted to own black people | have more rights than black people | be paid more than black people].”

          Claiming that humans are different is not racism/sexism/[whatever]ism. Using those claims (whether true or false) to justify oppressive laws is.

          If you expend all your energy on denying the differences, then you are implicitly granting validity to the notion that the presence of differences justifies unequal treatment.

          I find your approach untenable (no two groups are ever identical), and dangerous.

    2. Female comedians (comediennes) are almost never funny for some reason. Hitchens must have noticed this and started to wonder why. Myself, I’ve never met a funny woman in my life. I think his answer is reasonable even if it’s not exactly scientific.

      1. Hmm.

        There’s no shortage of unfunny males, either.

        On top of which, I find some comediennes funny. Paula Poundstone, for example. It’s been some time since I read the essay, but doesn’t Hitchens try to explain the “apparent” funniness of some women by saying they’re only mimicking males? Color me unconvinced. How does he know who’s mimicking who, if we grant that mimicry is even what’s going on? Plus, I’ll concede that delivery is part of what makes something funny, but much of the success of a joke is dependent on factors that would be completely unrelated to whether the deliverer is male or female.

    3. Are human traits as much the result of sexual selection as those of other animals? Of course. Maybe more so! But that doesn’t mean that all hypotheses based on sexual selection are true, or that opposition to such hypotheses is ipso facto unscientific and driven by such evils as political correctness.

      Now, it should be painfully obvious that humor is subjective. This doesn’t mean that it can’t be studied scientifically, of course, but it does mean we should be extra, extra careful with our statements about it, lest we fall into the trap of thinking that something “is” funny the way that something else “is” tall.

      Following from this, any sitation in which person A is thought to be “funnier” than B should be considered from numerous angles. What is the audience’s sense of humor, and what formed it? What experiences formed A’s sense of humor, and B’s? What is the relationship between sense-of-humor and humor-ability, eg, are people who find a broad range of things humorous more capable of making others laugh?

      Next, let’s consider the hypothesis that sexual selection by females would make males funnier. This isn’t unreasonable or untestable, so long as we can define “funny” in a sufficiently universal way, and use adequate blinding, etc. I don’t know what studies on the subject have been done so far, but I will pretend that there are no good ones, and continue brainstorming/pulling things out of by butt.

      To begin with, it’s not clear why selection of males by females would necessarily make men funnier than women; if humor isn’t maladaptive then women may as well be funny too. Furthermore, unless the genes in question (or their expression or whatever) are strictly tied to sex, funny men should have equally funny daughters. Altogether, we would only expect to see the species as a whole becoming “funnier” over time, except that the very subjectiveness of humor may render that notion incoherent.

      In fact, perhaps examining and talking about “funniness” is clouding things, and “funniness” is really the result of multiple different traits, like verbal ability, lateral thinking, imitation, etc, and we would do better to examine those. This would make sense in a number of ways; for example, it partially explains the wide diversity in senses of humor.

  6. I’ve read the first ten or so essays in Arguably. It really is a great book even thus far. His essay on John Brown was excellent. Hitch enriches the story of Brown, labelled as a terrorist for his militant actions in the service of the abolition of slavery in the days prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. Brown wasn’t castigated for his actions by the pro-slavery South so much as accomodationist abolitionists. It was they who tried to marginalize Brown. What a great story, reminds me of some other accomodationists I know of in a different context.

  7. Maybe it wasn’t such a good review because Keller was twisting himself around in the Week in Review (or whatever they call it now) section or Mag (don’t remember which) apologizing for or, rather, attempting to justify his lemmings-over-the-cliff support for the Iraq war. He took up maybe 2000 words of space, when all he had to say was, “I was wrong, I was dumb.”

    1. It’s a THICK book. B&N lists it as 816 pages.
      There are more errors on the Amazon page: most if not all ‘Editorial Reviews’ are actually about his memoir ‘Hitch 22’, NOT ‘Arguably’.

  8. ‘…his best-selling exegesis against religion, “God Is Not Great”’

    “exegesis”? – a critical explanation or interpretation of a text, especially a religious text? Hardly.

    “Polemic”? “Diatribe”? I like plain old-fashioned “argument”.

  9. 130p pacific, acknowledge Jerry’s recommendation of said book. 2.00pm download book for my Kobo e reader ($9.99)230p reading book on my patio in the shade (90 degrees f)…Life is good.

  10. I was delighted last week to find that it was available on the Kindle app for Australians, so, downloaded and have been breathing it in. This is another hint for you to push your publishers to put WEIT on Kindle for Australians.

  11. To inject some optimism, Hitch’s appearance is surely directly correlated with the length of time since his last treatment. I saw a guy I know this morning who was diagnosed with stage 4 esophageal cancer over a year ago. He looks better than he did before he became ill – so good that I was astonished as I don’t see him often. But he’s looked far worse in the interim.

  12. I think perhaps the question “Why Aren’t Women Funny?” could be more precisely, or accurately asked as “Why Don’t Men Find Women To Be Funny?”

    As much as I love women, I can recall probably 3 or 4 women that I’ve known in my entire life who made me laugh…really, honestly laugh…in the way men do when being funny. Whereas I could go on all day listing the men who make me laugh unreservedly…probably the greater proportion of males that I’ve met.

    Though with women comedians there is a selection process, insofar as the funny women are the ones going to be comediennes.
    Bet even there, I rarely find myself laughing at women’s stand up comedy (and I’m a fan of stand-up).

    I find myself laughing in the company of women, but it tends to be a “socializing” laugh as it were: because I find them attractive, or I’m dating them, or more generally just the social aspect that if someone says something “funny” you chuckle. (I don’t mean this is just a fake reaction – but that the laughter doesn’t seem to come from the same place as when laughing at males being funny).

    A friend and I (he’s a writer) were talking about this recently. We both notice that when women get together to talk, they do a lot of laughing. But what they are saying isn’t often very “funny”…but it seems the laughter itself is a sort of reflexive form of social lubrication, part of the consensus-building patter of women chatting.
    Whereas guy humor can often be less a consensus building reflex than a crucible to be passed: men can be quite wicked and relentless in skewering another guy in the company of others, and how you handle it will determine how the men see you.

    Another really noticeable difference we observed in women making other women laugh is that the women delivering the line laughs heartily at her own observation, sort of cuing “I’m making a joke” cuing laughter from the other women. This “laughing at your own joke,” as my friend observed, is generally verboten among male comedy and banter. For the most part, that is the LAST way to deliver a funny line among males. You make rye, dry, cutting comments and if it’s good the other guys laugh. But you don’t laugh at your own line, generally…that would be sort of mortifying, especially if it falls flat. At least among heterosexuals, you don’t get a free ride by being attractive to the other guy, so you are either “actually funny” to another guy or not.

    Men want to laugh…but they are also a tough audience. And in my experience men are MUCH more merciless with their humor with each other in terms of cutting each other up. Women are much less willing to “go there” in front of another woman to get a laugh.

    But all that said, humor being subjective, it doesn’t seem fair to say “Women aren’t funny.” Because after all, I see women laughing at women all the time. Given this, I can certainly see why a women would object to the “Women aren’t funny” blanket assessment.

    But it certainly is accurate in my experience, and any male I’ve talked to about this issue, that in general men don’t find women to be funny – not nearly as much as other men are funny.


    1. And as we all know, the way men view any issue is the impartial truth, and what men find funny is what is funny.

      Also, men “being a tougher audience”–I guess that must explain Spike TV, Jackass, fart jokes…

      Finally, I’ve been so restraining myself from posting that women just laugh politely at men…Your post is an example of why restraint was the right impulse.

      1. Diane,

        –“And as we all know, the way men view any issue is the impartial truth, and what men find funny is what is funny.”

        So apparently you just ignored how I continually qualified my statements to point to the subjectivity of humour, including skipping over my second last paragraph? I don’t mind critique, but why resort to strawmanning, as if I even IMPLIED impartiality on behalf of men. The whole POINT was partiality. (That’s why I said the question should be rephrased to reflect the fact it tends to report the bias of men! Although, I’ve seen women who agree as well).

        My claim, supported by my experience, by the experience of other men, and by this issue being raised often in general, is that men tend to prefer the humor of men over the humor of women. And in that sense generally, men don’t find women to be as funny as men.

        Do you actually want to dispute that claim?

        If not, the point of my post is correct.


        1. Actually, I’m sorry I jumped in at all. I did like the first and penultimate paragraphs in your original post. As to the rest, it read to much–to me–as the commonly seen assumption that the male perspective is the ‘normal,’ the ‘baseline,’ and thus the ‘impartial’ POV, while females are, as always, the exception. It’s quite possible I was bringing too much previous baggage to bear here. Not to mention irritation with Hitchens’ original essay.

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