Sunday, March 09, 2014

Book Club: Arguably

Essays by Christopher Hitchens
12, 2011

I picked up this book because it was in one of the bargain bins at McNally Robinson - not the end-of-the-line cart, but one of the shelves in their reduced-cost area. Anyway, I'd been meaning to read some Hitchens for a while, and I bought this not long after his death; I think it is the last book he wrote, though perhaps there's a technicality there because very little of this book is new material written in 2010/2011, it's nearly entirely essays, reviews, and similar short pieces previously published in such places as The Atlantic, Salon, Slate, or Vanity Fair.

Hitchens was an excellent writer. Even if one disagrees with every last one of his opinions, it is impossible to avoid the realization that he knew, very well, his way around a keyboard. He was also a monumental reader, and equiped with the kind of memory that can keep the important details of an entire library of books, fiction and nonfiction, ready at hand to build unexpected connections between disparate concepts. Many of these essays begin with a few paragraphs that seem utterly disjointed from the main topic of the essay, until he provides a bridge from, say, contemporary Iranian literature to a controversial piece of Russian literature. That bridge from Reading Lolita in Iran to a review of a new-at-the-time discussion on the works of Nabokov (author of the original Lolita) is merely the first of many that stood out to me as a kind of signature of Hitchens' writing style.

Another style point of Hitchens' was his attention to authors of the mid-twentieth century. I admit I know next to nothing about P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, or Graham Greene, but Hitchens spends about 1/4 of this book on essays describing such people, their effects on later writers, their opinions and troubles when such opinions clashed with those of others, and occassionally reviewing a book that presents new or rehashed information about these people. The section "Eclectic Affinities", running from page 139 to 387 of this 750+ page tome was thus barely comprehensible to me. The fault there is entirely the result of my own interests not overlapping with Hitchens in those cases. It was a bit of a slog to get through that part, is what I'm saying. But your mileage may vary.

Much like "The Moth", among this large collection there were only a few pieces I didn't like. There are the I-don't-know-enough-about-this-to-have-an-opinion parts, as mentioned above, a great many very, very good essays, and (skimming the table of contents) only one essay I positively disliked: Why Women Aren't Funny, starting on page 389 (and wedged between quite good essays about the Harry Potter series and Steig Larsson).

Why Women Aren't Funny originally appeared in Vanity Fair in January of 2007; at the time I was aware of Hitchens as a writer mainly because of his prominence as an atheist. That essay sparked considerable discussion, aluded to in the introduction of Arguably with:
"... not quite saving me from the most instantly misinterpreted of all my articles, concerning the humor deficit as registered by gender."

I admit that despite keeping that point in mind - that much of what was said and written about that essay in early 2007 constituted a collection of mistakes - I was unconvinced that some deeper and interesting and important point was lurking under the essay as it appears. The main point is a fairly hamfisted interpretation of evolutionary psychology, itself a dreary and adled discipline, in the narrow field of funny people. The glaring assumption, never addressed in the essay, is that there are far more highly successful male comedians than female, and that one is much more likely to laugh at a story told by a man at a social gathering than one told by a woman, and other such signs of greater funniness among men, is that current patterns in American society are representative of 100 000 years of global human evolution. Bullshit. No other cause for such patterns is seriously explored, and the result is an essay with a huge WTF? metaphorically hanging over the page as I read it. Blergh.

But, one dud out of more than 100 essays is pretty good ratio. And it's useful to be able to point at the exception that proves the rule, here using the correct definition of "prove" in this context, that of a test, and the rule being "Hitchens is a damn good writer".

Other essays made me laugh out loud, including the insults leveled at Gore Vidal, the elaborate punishments for rude waiters who interrupt stimulating dinner conversation, and the strange things sometimes said to Hitchens at various functions. Other essays brought a chill to my spine, especially Imagining Hitler, in which the image is painted in my mind of a fed-up Austrian construction worker booting the young Adolf off of a high scaffold and thus usefully diverting history.

Steven J. Gould was another great essayist. Christopher Hitchens acheives, in my view, the same high level as a writer of the short non-fiction piece. There are tremendous differences in how each wrote, in the topics they chose to cover (to simplify, Gould on baseball, Hitchens on Kingsley Amis' circle of friends circa 1950), and in public response to their writings, but the overall sense of utter mastery of the form comes through.

I've read a fair bit of Gould, and now a little Hitchens. I understand that there are considerable differences in skill required for a full-length book compared to a 5-page essay, and I think I need to evaluate both writers on their longer works as well.

One final cautionary note from Hitchens, though: the ultimate essay in this book is Prisoner of Shelves, a lament on the troubles associated with owning books, books, so many books! I own several hundred books, and I can relate.

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