In the June issue of Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens writes about the newest assault by his esophageal cancer: “Most despond-inducing and alarming of all, so far, was the moment when my voice suddenly rose to a childish (or perhaps piglet-like) piping squeak. It then began to register all over the place, from a gruff and husky whisper to a papery, plaintive bleat. And at times it threatened, and now threatens daily, to disappear altogether.”
Fortunately, with the publication of “The Quotable Hitchens,” we have Hitchens‘ voice as clear, mellifluous, churlish and persuasive (or not) as one would hope. Windsor Mann, a former Washington Times colleague, has deftly selected and assembled the “best-of” Hitchens quotes. Some are doozies, to be sure, and there is something for everyone to be delighted or offended by, depending on your politics or sensibilities. Mr. Mann says in his introduction, “The man is freakishly intelligent and unfailingly interesting,” and the quotes back this up.
At first glance, the book reminds one of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations,” but this volume is something more personal, more outre and more funny. Smartly organized by subject, it is a book to be enjoyed both as a long visit with the incomparable social critic and as a quick reference in those moments when one might wonder: What exactly did the grand provocateur have to say about Mother Teresa?
Under the title “Mother Teresa (Agnes Bojaxhiu),” readers find:
“With M.T. one sees yet again the alliance between ostentatious religiosity and the needs of crude secular power. This is of course a very old story indeed, but when one surveys the astonishing, abject credulity of the media in the face of the M.T. fraud, it becomes easier to understand how the sway of superstition was exerted in medieval times.”
In the book, Henry Kissinger, Dick Morris, Michael Moore, O.J. Simpson and most women (with the exception of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) get their own M.T. treatment. However, Thomas Paine, Shakespeare (“the people’s poet”), Francisco de Goya and Bob Dylan do just fine.
While many of the citations are devoted to familiar personalities, most of the book is anchored by quotes about concepts or abstractions. On page 228 alone, readers find quotes under the titles of “Pride,” “Privacy” and “Privilege.” On the same page, “Pro-Choice Movement” and “Pro-Life Movement” get their treatment, and what Mr. Hitchens has to say about each will surprise many and anger even more. The A-to-Z suggested in the book’s title, here in fact, is abortion to Zionism, and I’ll wager few will be happy about either. As for alcohol, this pithy quote rises above the rest: “Alcohol is a good friend but a bad master.”
Mr. Hitchens is no stranger to controversy. In roughly a dozen books including, most recently, “Hitch-22” and in countless essays and articles, Mr. Hitchens has held forth about how we live, vote, fight wars and believe - or don’t believe - in God. In these pages, his nimble smorgasbord is spread, and one can glimpse his views about a vast array of subjects along with this rare revelation about a close family member. Under the citation “Peter Hitchens,” there is:
“My brother, Peter is like all bearers of the family name, highly - nay mysteriously - intelligent and a writer of unusual verve and range. Here, all resemblance ends. He is a staunch Christian and an abstainer from alcohol and tobacco. He lacks also, I sometimes think, my strange, hypnotic power over women.”
On the subject of atheism, there are, not surprisingly, many entries, notably: “What we [atheists] don’t know, we don’t claim to know.”
Fleet Street and Larry Flynt, Orwell and Original Sin. One can go on and on. This is especially remarkable in light of the fact that Mr. Mann acknowledges he had to cut 60,000 words from the original manuscript.
With Martin Amis‘ heartfelt and gorgeously framed foreword along with Mr. Mann’s insightful introduction, one cannot walk away from this volume untouched by their measure of the man. Something deeper is afoot, of course. There is no escaping the solemnity and sorrow beneath the celebration of Mr. Hitchens‘ range and gifts.
Mr. Amis, who has been a friend to Mr. Hitchens for more than 40 years, concludes his remarks by writing directly to his dear friend, “[W]e do know what is going to happen to you, and to everyone else who will ever live on this planet. Your corporeal existence, O Hitch, derives from the elements released by supernovae, by exploding stars.”