Christopher Hitchens was one of my favorite authors and journalists, and his death has made me all the hungrier for his works. My most recent expedition was through his memoir, Hitch-22. This is somewhat of a review.
I have finally finished the long and humbling read that is Christopher Hitchens’ memoir, Hitch-22. I won’t beat about the bush: it was good (although I would not recommend surmounting it before getting to know the man through his works first—Love, Poverty and War, Letters to a Young Contrarian, God is not Great, and any floor-mopping debate with the wretched Dinesh D’Souza are all great places to begin). It was so good, in fact, that it has the distinct effect of depressing you in contemplation of your own experiences and contributions to humanity by comparison, while at the same time lifting your spirits and solidifying your gumption in the direction of your favored cause.
Hitchens’ memoir is a testament to the fact that actively fighting for and testing your beliefs is, if nothing else, incredibly interesting. To have the sort of conviction he possessed as young man is something to be envied and emulated by all, but especially by anyone who is still contemplating the safety of relativism or quiet, unobtrusive partisanship. Hitchens has conclusively shown that the path of least resistance is not the way to cultural significance, nor experiences worth reading about, and certainly not international friendships that span borders and cultures. If, at the end of one’s life, one can claim to have known people, places, and (most importantly) discussions as Hitchens did, then one should feel content to die with at least some satisfaction.
The best takeaways from this read declare a need for steadfast solidarity with other humans who value liberty, free speech, and the importance of reason. This, along with the knowledge that the struggle for these things is never a waste of time is worth keeping in mind at each instant. I found myself challenged on several occasions throughout the read. I espouse many of the same values as Hitchens, but have I the conviction to do more than passively applaud their successes and lament in quiet their defeats? Anyone of even remotely decent means must be constantly challenging themselves similarly, and this tiny collection of noble experiences suggests that the bar ought to be set high. This is a good thing, and it makes for a good read—all good writing should seep into your soul and interrogate your being.
It’s due to this evocation of self-examination and contemplation that the book took me so damn long to read. Just about every sentence is a conversation starter, for one, and Hitchens has no interest in brevity. The breadth of his eloquence is matched only by the size of his vocabulary, and he flexes both of these muscles frequently (although I do believe he could have taken a note from his hero, Orwell, on a few occasions and opted for more plain and concise language and fewer foreign phrases). When embarking on this journey of prose, one should be prepared to give it some good time, and keep a pen and Post-Its at the ready all times. There are few pages not worth revisiting for some kind of insight.
In fact, younger readers like myself might find within the pages a course’s worth of important recent history deserving of at least some consideration. Almost none of the events described in Hitch-22 were ever taught at length to me in my studies—events like the ethnic slaughter of Muslims during the war in Bosnia/Herzegovina or the truly psychopathic nature of Saddam Hussein’s torturous regime or the flimsy utopian fever dreams that motivated Cuban revolutionaries in the late sixties. Hitchens was able to bring me to those moments, if only in quick bursts, and allow me to contemplate them as more than locations on a timeline of events preceding my birth. And for anyone who’s read the full-length articles he penned in response to these events, having a look “behind the scenes” only adds to the effectiveness of his abilities as a storyteller. To study Hitchens the man is rather to catch a glimpse of history animated through the real stories, feelings, and motivations of humans.
To put it another way, Hitch-22 is well worth the effort it takes to read. It’s a highly entertaining, educational, and challenging read. As with a work of great fiction, this one will linger in your thoughts after you’ve put it down for the day. The only difference is that your mind will be working not on the plights of fictional characters, but on history and the evolving political forces at work around you, and even your own motivations and actions. You will stew on the impact you might have in your short time in this life, and perhaps, in your weaker moments, lament the impossibility of measuring up to this incredible man for whom the world is now poorer for having lost.
RIP, Mr. Hitchens. I regret not having shook your hand in this life, but in your words and works, grasp firmly an ever-outstretched member.