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Arguably by Christopher Hitchens
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Arguably (2011)

by Christopher Hitchens

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When a person abounds in a talent for writing, they enlighten and provide insight that give reason to the power of words. There are few who did this better than Christopher Hitchens. Commentary and review aside, Christopher's ability to use words is similar to a magicians slight of hand. The words are quick, entertaining and -- in the end -- you wonder how he did it. Hitchens does it with intelligence and fortitude. Words accumulate in the writing with what seems little effort. But, as we know, the effort is displayed with abundance. Hitchens was a straight-forward, logical thinker and backed his opinions in writing. His unfailing support of Saldam Rushdie and his abiding disregard for religious arrogance are tantamount to his character. I can only guess at the number of books Christopher read during his life. Books and writing were, of course, a passion he surely enjoyed. Taken from page 748, "Prisoner of Shelves", Hitchens writes " ... I live in a fairly spacious apartment ... but for some reason the available shelf space, which is considerable, continues to be outrun by the appearance of new books." What a glorious sight! ( )
  MikeBiever | Aug 9, 2016 |
As a reflection of its author, Arguably, a compendium of the writings of the late Christopher Hitchens, is a success. Upon completion of this tome, one feels as if one has acquired an appreciation of the man's character and intellect, as well as having a keener understanding of the topics which he chooses to discuss. The characteristic that manifests more than any other is his uncompromising hostility to intolerance, fanaticism and moral and intellectual cowardice. With many of the selections on offer in Arguably dealing with contemporary political and social issues, he has plenty of cause to employ his pen.

Perhaps it is for these reasons - his commentary on contemporary issues and his hostility towards fanaticism and cowardice - that he has been portrayed (extremely unjustly) as an Islamophobe (a term which, in 'Stand Up for Denmark!' and 'Don't Mince Words' in this collection, he ably demonstrates is itself a debased, cowardly phrase). Rather, Islam is the target for his ire in a large number of his writings precisely because it is, unfortunately, currently the most de-evolved of the major religions and the predominant cause of many of the contemporary political problems on which he commentates. Perhaps due to his uncompromising style of writing, his firm convictions and his thoughtful atheism (which he admirably and unstubbornly upheld even in death), the term 'Islamophobe' sticks to him well, at least for those who have not read any of his work. Arguably indirectly refutes this view, presenting the real Hitchens: one who, if hostile to Abrahamic religion, is at least only hostile when hostility is conscionable. Thus, he rails against the immoral - and, it should be said, un-Islamic - imposition of the burka ('In Your Face'), the theocracies of Iran ('Iran's Waiting Game') and Pakistan ('From Abbottabad to Worse') and the hand-wringing political correctness of many Western commentators on these and other matters ('She's No Fundamentalist'). In truth, and surprisingly for those who entertain the crude caricature of Hitchens, his love of Middle Eastern culture and its peoples shines through, whether in relation to Iran (in 'The Persian Version' and the afore-mentioned 'Iran's Waiting Game'), Kurdistan ('Holiday in Iraq') or - my particular favourite - Lebanon ('The Swastika and the Cedar'). Even more surprisingly for one's of the world's most well-known atheists, he finds the time in this compendium to profess admiration for the poetry of the King James Bible ('When the King Saved God'). His atheism is a palpable, if intermittent, presence in the writings assembled in Arguably (only a few essays - 'Gods of Our Fathers', 'In Defence of Foxhole Atheists' and 'The New Commandments' - address it directly) but his is a refined and intellectually thoughtful atheism, rather than the somewhat antagonistic and condescending atheism that is unfortunately the norm.

However, it should be said that there is more to Arguably than Islam and atheism, and the topics covered are impressively diverse. Upon reading them, one gets the sense that Hitchens could have been an expert on any one of them, if he had chosen. The strongest essays are those which, as mentioned earlier, deal with contemporary political issues, and the reason for their strength, in my opinion, is that they are firmly rooted in history. For example, 'Iran's Waiting Game' discusses the legacy of Mossadeq and the fall of the Shah, 'The Perils of Partition' demonstrates how many of the world's political hotspots are the consequence of the British Empire, and 'An Anglosphere Future' traces the Anglo-American 'special relationship', for want of a better term, though it expands far beyond this.

That said, Hitchens is more than just a commentator on world affairs, and among the topics he discusses engagingly are animal rights ('Political Animals'), capital punishment ('Old Enough to Die'), women's humour ('Why Women Aren't Funny', which is nowhere near as boorish as one might fear), the British monarchy ('Charles, Prince of Piffle', which also serves as a defence of science against well-meaning but misguided moral and intellectual weaklings") and waterboarding ('Believe Me, It's Torture'). This last article is also a sort of soul-searching look at his adopted nation, the United States, as is 'America the Banana Republic' and, most powerfully, 'The Vietnam Syndrome'. 'The Vietnam Syndrome' looks at the decision to employ Agent Orange during the 1960s and 1970s, undoubtedly one of the most shameful and morally bankrupt actions by any nation in human history. I defy anyone to read about this subject and not feel sickened (even if, like me, you are not an American), a sickness which intensifies if you look at some of the pictures of the atrocities, which even the wordsmith Hitchens concedes cannot be truly described in his prose.

There are also a number of dedicated historical articles, the strongest of which concern American history up until the time of Lincoln (of which 'Jefferson Versus the Muslim Pirates' and 'John Brown: The Man Who Ended Slavery' are the highlights). Whilst these are clustered towards the start of Arguably, some gems are also peppered throughout, such as 'Marx's Journalism: The Grub Street Years' and 'Imagining Hitler'. Finally, a large part of the book is devoted to literary criticism, analysing writers such as Flaubert, Dickens, Orwell, Wodehouse and Rowling (other writers, such as Nabokov and Updike, are dealt with elsewhere). While less immediately engaging than the other selections, these articles are still recommended even if, like myself, you are largely unfamiliar with many of the subjects. Of particular note are 'Things Worth Fighting For', which discusses Rebecca West and her view of the pre-1939 Balkans, and 'The Men Who Made England', a review of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall which also passionately conveys the importance of the English Reformation.

While the length and make-up of this book is such that many will choose to read it piecemeal, I chose to read it from page one to page 749 in the space of a week. It is a testament to the quality of Hitchens' writing that I was never once bored, fatigued, or anything less than thoroughly entertained." ( )
  MikeFutcher | Jun 3, 2016 |
This has to be a five star book, if only for the gargantuan effort that it must have taken to edit such a work into existence.

I didn't always agree with Hitchens, and sometimes I was infuriated by his capricious mood when dealing for example with the apparent differences between American and Islamic imperialism, but he always entertained and, more importantly, prompted thought throughout this hefty tome.

I always find Hitchens at his best when dealing with religion, he seems learned in that field and gives interesting and arresting opinions to the reader, perhaps because I agree with much of what he says, but I hope not just because of that reason.

In one regard though I felt this book to be difficult and that is in the matter of audience. Hitchen's assumption of knowledge in the reader, of allusions and of references, is quite breathtaking. There is no explanation and not even a hint of an allowance for a less than perfect education in his reader, as my own surely is. I find that this is a turn off because there must surely be a pedagogical connection between essayist and reader for a transmission of knowledge to occur. That there is none here makes me suspect that Hitchens wrote almost exclusively for his educated circle and not for the likes of me.

I found the afterward, in contrast, to be warm and moving and this went someway to softening my reaction to the cold feeling that I got from some of the essays in this collection. I was deeply moved, probably with the hindsight that his death has engendered, by the obviously heartfelt thanks that he gave to his doctors and family - I don’t think I’ve read as genuine and human a dedication in a long time and it confirmed Hitchens as essentially a humanist, which is always agreeable.

Criticisms aside I can't find any other score than five full stars to be reasonable for this book – it’s a lifetime’s work and is a triumph of the modern mind. I will miss his analysis, if only as a yardstick to test my own prejudices and opinions against.
( )
2 vote MartynChuzz | Feb 22, 2016 |
Hitchens is never terse in his essays, and his wit is both fair and acerbic. You can read all of this, or most of it at any rate, outside of the book. It's just a collection, but a fun to read collection. ( )
  Michael_Rose | Jan 10, 2016 |
As a general rule, I love this author. He can say more in one sentence than most people say in a paragraph. I found this compilation of essays a little hard to understand (some of them) but still a book that I enjoyed reading. ( )
  avid1 | Nov 11, 2015 |
Showing 1-5 of 27 (next | show all)
So, having paid my dues to critical candor, I still find Hitchens one of the most stimulating thinkers and entertaining writers we have, even when — perhaps especially when — he provokes. And while he clearly wants to win you over, you always sense that he is playing in part to the jury of history, which is why so much of what he might, in a rare self-deprecating moment, refer to as hackwork stands up so well to ­anthologizing.
 
Hitchens is, and has been for many years, the mightiest knocker-down in argumentative journalism in the Anglophone world. This vast volume, containing ten years of argufying, is every bit as pugilistic, as unanswerable, as toughly rationalist, as unstoppable, as strenuously lived, as its many predecessors from his hand.
 

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Epigraph
"Live all you can: It's a mistake not to."
— Lambert Strether, in The Ambassadors
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To the memory of Mohemed Bouazizi, Abu-Abdel Monaam Hamedeh, and Ali Mehdi Zeu.
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The three names on the dedication page belonged to a Tunisian steet vendor, an Egyptian restaurateur, and a Libyan husband and father.
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Essayist Christopher Hitchens ruminates on why Charles Dickens was among the best of writers and the worst of men, the haunting science fiction of J.G. Ballard, the enduring legacies of Thomas Jefferson and George Orwell, the persistent agonies of anti-Semitism and jihad, the enduring relevance of Karl Marx, and how politics justifies itself by culture--and how the latter prompts the former.… (more)

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