Arguably: Selected Essays by Christopher Hitchens

GAH! I can’t look away from this cover that Goodreads provided. My copy of Arguably is plain, blinding yellow, which sometimes gives me a headache but at least it doesn’t stare into my soul. I feel sorry for anyone who actually owns a copy with this particular cover of doom on it.

Before his death, I had a vague awareness of Christopher Hitchens, having read some of his contributions to Vanity Fair, but he never struck me as someone I should be paying close attention to until after he had died and I was reading some of his most memorable quotes online. Click the link and read #11. It changed my entire perception of Hitchens and made me respect him so much more – I was raised Catholic, and you simply do not criticize Mother friggin’ Teresa. It just does not compute for us. But the thing is, he was absolutely right. After I read that, I decided that I had to read more of Hitchens’ stuff.

The essays in this group are divided into sections: first are a series of book reviews (which are less about the books in question and more critical essays on the various dead British men who are the subjects); then a bunch of straightforward worshipful essays on mostly dead British male authors; a bit entitled “Amusements, Annoyances, and Disappointments” which, had I been in charge of this collection, would have been titled “Hitchens Bitchin'” (tip your waitresses, you’ve been great); foreign policy essays dealing mostly with the Middle East, “Legacies of Totalitarianism”; and finally a series of brief little essays on a wide range of subjects, including a history of the King James Bible, a discussion of the evolution of the word “like”, and the joys of the phrase “fuck off.”

They’re not all awesome. I freely admit that I skipped the essays on Edmund Burke, Stephen Spender, and Edward Said because I don’t know who those guys are/don’t know enough about them to make the essays compelling. Hitchens can be unbelievably crotchety, particularly in a piece where he whines about how much he hates it when a waiter interrupts dinner (ie, interrupts Hitchens speaking) to pour wine for everyone at the table. Also he has a remarkable tone-deaf essay in which he laments that he isn’t allowed to say the n-word in any context without everyone getting mad at him. And of course, his infamous “Why Women Aren’t Funny” essay is here, and it’s so mired in smugness and antiquated gender stereotypes that it’s not even worth reading, much less taking seriously (I’ll save you the time and tell you that Hitchens’s argument boils down to, “women can’t be funny because they’re too preoccupied with having babies.” No, really.) In fact, Hitchens is pretty damn insufferable whenever he has to talk about women, and he is especially irritating when he’s discussing Middle Eastern women. He has a terrible essay on why it’s a good idea for France to ban burquas (I personally prefer Jon Stewart’s take on the issue, which is that forbidding women to dress a certain way is just as bad as forcing them to do so), and seems to be personally offended by the idea of any woman wearing a burqua, hijab, or even a headscarf. In fact, whenever a Middle Eastern woman is mentioned in the book, even if she’s just been seen from a distance, Hitchens has to make sure to let us know if she’s wearing a headscarf. This is weird, because although he frequently seeks out other experts to weigh in on whatever topic he’s writing about (he even emailed Nora Ephron and Fran Lebowitz for their opinions on his “hurr, women can’t tell jokes” bullshit, because apparently they are the funniest women Christopher Hitchens knows, which makes me sad for a lot of reasons), he never mentions asking a Muslim woman about why she does or doesn’t wear a headscarf. The idea that a woman would choose to wear a headscarf, rather than being forced to, doesn’t seem to have occurred to Hitchens.

But everything else he writes about the Middle East is very, very good, and possibly the best essays in the entire collection are when he’s discussing his experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan – there’s a particularly stirring essay where Hitchens willingly allows himself to be waterboarded and reports on the experience. And despite not always agreeing with it, I was in constant awe of Hitchen’s voice and its intelligent, no-bullshit tone. One thing that at least can be said for Christopher Hitchens: he does not condescend to his readers. In fact, he expects you to be as smart as he is, and understand all of his references and jokes, and I’ll admit that I couldn’t always keep up. Also admirable is his absolute refusal to cave to any sentimentality – he calls the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings an “exhausting national sob fest.”

Not that he’s heartless. One of the most moving essays is about the uses of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, and what Hitchens saw when he visited victims who were permanently disfigured because of the chemical. I’ll give the last word to Hitchens and let him describe the experience himself, because there’s really no better way to demonstrate what a talented, brilliant, and secretly compassionate man he was:

“At a school full of children who made sign language to one another or who couldn’t sit still (or who couldn’t move much at all), or who couldn’t see or couldn’t hear…I was then asked if I would like to say a few words, through an interpreter, to the assembly. I quite like a captive audience, but I didn’t trust myself to say a fucking thing. Several of the children in the front row were so wizened and shrunken that they looked as if they could be my seniors. I swear to you that Jim Natchway has taken photographs, as one of his few rivals, Philip Jones Griffiths, also took photographs, that simply cannot be printed in this magazine, because they would poison your sleep, as they have poisoned mine.”

Verdict: four out of five stars

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