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.