Tag: Christopher Hitchens

Mortality

Cover image for Mortality by Christopher Hitchens by Christopher Hitchens

ISBN 978-1-4555-0276-9

“In some ways, I tell myself I could hobble along by communicating only in writing. But this is really only because of my age. If I had been robbed of my voice earlier, I doubt that I ever would have achieved much on the page.”

In June 2010, on tour for his memoir Hitch-22, journalist and atheist Christopher Hitchens woke up in his New York hotel room in incredible pain, barely able to summon emergency services to his aid. What he initially suspected was a heart attack resulted in a diagnosis of Stage IV esophageal cancer, hardly surprising in a life-long smoker. Over the next eighteen months, while undergoing chemotherapy and radiation, Hitchens wrote a series of columns for Vanity Fair about his journey “from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.” Mortality collects eight of these musings on the nature of life and death, health and illness, and the true “weight of the materialist proposition that I don’t have a body, I am a body.”

In his life before cancer, Christopher Hitchens was known for lucidity even under the influence, writing and debating while drunk more often than not. Perhaps, then, it should not be so surprising that he brought the same self-possession to bear on his own illness, fighting to the end to see it through clear eyes, even as the decay of his body threatened to cloud his vision and deprive him of his voice. However bravely Hitchens looked death in the face, there is plenty of humanity in the fear and anger, hope and curiousity of his final missives to the “country of the well.” And whatever clarity and dignity he brings to the subject of death, Hitchens is no atheist martyr, assumed without snot, or vomit, or radiation burn. No final illness is a pretty one.

Seven of the works collected here are complete essays, where Hitchens explores everything from cancer etiquette, to losing his voice, to the irrational reactions of the faithful at the news of the imminent death of an atheist icon. As a non-believer fighting for his life, he was faced with the prayers of the faithful who were much more concerned with his salvation than his recovery. While Hitchens struggled with the loss of one his tools of trade, believers gloated that God had struck him dumb. While Hitchens and his family were hoping for a cure, the faithful were praying for a deathbed conversion that would justify their belief. There were too few like his friend, Dr. Francis Collins, who helped him negotiate the road without rancour or proselytizing.

The final chapter of Mortality is comprised of unfinished ideas and musings, some of which grew into the essays, and others which will never be explored. Less polished, and more personal, these musings are revealing, both of Hitchen’s writing process, and his more private self. Good as the essays are, these notes reveal they were fought out through “chemo-brain,” and the “dull, stuporous” drag it put on him. Careful to avoid self-pity in his essays, we know from these fragments that he had moments of darkness, when simply watching an old YouTube video of his healthy self was overwhelming. But he was also able to pun on the similarity between oncology and ontology, and snipe about “the banality of cancer,” and ultimately leave us wishing this was not the last book we will ever get from him.

In a moving afterword Carol Blue writes, “my husband was an impossible act to follow.”  Indeed it is difficult for a dying man to follow the act of his younger, healthier self. The man in the last months of his life is a qualitatively different Hitch than the writer and thinker who had never before written while “living dyingly,” but his final contribution to the world of letters is no less astute for all that it is incomplete. What this slim little book lacks, only more time could have made up.

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Top 5 Non-Fiction Reads of 2012

These are my favourite non-fiction titles read (not necessarily published) in 2012. Click the title for links to full reviews, where applicable. You can see my top 5 fiction titles for the year here.

Quiet (978-0307352149)

Cover image for Quiet by Susan CainThis title is at the top of a number of booklists for 2012 with good reason. Bookish folks, myself included, related powerfully to Susan Cain’s passionate message about the undervaluation of introversion in Western culture. The book cuts a broad swath, from outlining the rise of the extrovert ideal, to the psychological roots of introversion, to the perception of introversion in other cultures, to tips on how introverts and extroverts can work better together. Cain strips away the cultural stigma attached to introversion and examines the unique and underutilized skills of the quiet folks. This title was incredibly well written and researched, and Cain’s voice is passionate and compelling. You can watch Cain’s TED Talk on the power of introverts here.

Categories: Psychology

Joseph Anton (978-0812992786)

Cover Image for Joseph Anton by Salman RushdieSalman Rushdie thinks of himself first and foremost as a writer, but for over a decade, his life was dominated by disparate public perceptions stemming from the aftermath of the fatwa in which Ayatollah Khomeini issued a death sentence for the blasphemous contents of his 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. Rushdie gives a compelling account of his struggles to hold on to his identity as a writer, and to continue to produce fiction under the incredibly trying circumstances of a protection. He filled many roles during this time, planning safe houses, engaging in free speech advocacy, lobbying the British government to intercede on his behalf, and struggling to secure a paperback edition of the book. I picked this book up because I admire Rushdie’s commitment to intellectual freedom, but I came away with much more respect for his integrity and determination as a writer, even as I felt I had seen the darkest and least flattering parts of the man.

Categories: Autobiography

The Portable Atheist (978-0306816086)

Cover Image for the Portable Atheist by Christopher HitchensStretching from Greek philosophy to contemporary humour and science writing, The Portable Atheist contains a broad selection of essays chronicling the evolution of atheist, agnostic and humanist thought in Western culture. The essays are selected and introduced by “New Atheist” writer Christopher Hitchens, but the pieces demonstrate that some of our currents ideas about atheism have very old roots indeed. This volume was slow, hefty reading, but extremely rewarding.

Categories: History, Philosophy

Elizabeth the Queen (978-0812979794)

Cover image for Elizabeth the Queen by  Sally Bedell SmithWhether you are a royalist, and abolitionist, or simply indifferent to the British royal family, Elizabeth Windsor has had a long and interesting life and reign, presiding over six decades of rapid change. Queen Elizabeth II is simultaneously one of the most public figures in the world, and yet intensely private, so it is fascinating to catch in glimpse into her world, particularly in a way that so humanizing. Sally Bedell Smith profiles the Queen with the same attention to detail she is known for in her previous works on the Kennedys and the Clintons. This title focuses on Elizabeth’s time as queen with little attention to her childhood, and the author is certainly friendly to her subject, but overall this was a well-written and informative read.

Categories: Biography

The Storytelling Animal (978-0547391403)

Cover Image for The Storytelling AnimalThe storytelling phenomenon appears across time and cultures, raising the questions of what purpose, if any, it serves in human evolution. Gottschall examines contexts in which our desire to impose narrative order on the world is useful (recognizing patterns) and detrimental (eyewitness testimony is unreliable due to the plasticity of memory). Dreams and daydreams, the pretend play of children, and the relationship between empathy and fiction are all examined in this brief and tantalizing introduction to the neuroscience behind our narrative impulses.

Categories: Literary Criticism, Science

 

The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever

Cover Image for the Portable Atheist by Christopher HitchensSelected and with introductions by Christopher Hitchens

ISBN 978-0-306-81608-6

If you read about atheism, you are probably familiar with the work of the late Christopher Hitchens, and his most famous contemporaries, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Dan Dennett. In The Portable Atheist, Hitchens offers readers the opportunity to expand their horizons with an anthology containing 47 essays and excerpts on unbelief. Dawkins, Harris and Dennett are all represented, but Hitchens’ selections range from Greek philosophy (Lucretius) to English poetry (Thomas Hardy, Philip Larkin) to modern scientific treatises (Victor Stenger). This collection offers dozens of arguments against the existence of a deity, but it is also a book about the evolution of unbelief in Western culture. By arranging the readings in chronological order rather than by theme, Hitchens creates a history of non-theism which contextualizes the current state of affairs. While the language and style of some of the older readings may be challenging for the modern reader, their contents can also be startling in their continued relevance. Although there are some leavening humourous pieces (Michael Shermer), the book leans towards a scholarly tone.

The book weighs in at a hefty (and somewhat less than portable) 499 pages and yet undoubtedly could have included many more selections. Notably absent are Nietzsche, Voltaire and Bakunin to name only a few. Hitchens briefly introduces each reading in his customary style, but is sometimes sparse on biographical details, perhaps due to space constraints. The index is likewise somewhat cursory for such a lengthy text. As noted by Hitchens himself, the selections are heavy on white men, and Oxonians. Excellent writers from the Jewish and Muslim traditions, including Steven Weinberg, Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, are included, but the collection predominantly assumes a Christian background. However, the volume does reflect the wide variety of non-belief from atheism to agnosticism to humanism that has arisen from within these confines.