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Christopher Hitchens’ “Arguably”

This is an aerobic step rather than a book; it’s almost eight hundred pages of intellectual maelstrom. Hitchens approaches writing like a vocation but one that appears to demand little effort though I’m sure that’s not the case. There are over thirty pages of references in the index and if one were to casually scan the entries it would become clear that this man knew a lot about a lot. Anyone who’s anyone is in there and many less familiar names appear: so we have Isaac Newton and Abraham Lincoln of course but also van Gogh (not Vincent but Theo); there is listed the name Hitler (whose absence might seem a farcical oversight) but there, along with Adolf is Hoshyar Zebari. Who’s he? you might ask –  well, quite.

It turns out Hitchens can write about anything and anyone and very well too. How do I know? One way to tell is when you find yourself excitedly telling friends about his essay “Why Women Aren’t Funny” and photocopying it for one female colleague in particular and wanting to know what she thought. One of his ideas is that the original purpose of humour was the mocking of authority: “Irony itself has been called ” ‘the glory of slaves.’ ” Then on the subject of Mark Twain he gives us this: “I reflect on Mark Twain and I see not just the man who gave us Judge Thatcher’s fetching daughter but also the figure who wrote so cunningly about the charm of underage girls and so bluntly about defloration.” I need say little else in this respect other than that such words raise an eyebrow and provoke thought.

Then there’s the vocab: “bowdlerizes” on p. 43 caused me a little consternation since I felt I should know what it means yet came up blank. But I looked it up and found it means “to edit by omitting or modifying parts considered indelicate” – not something Twain seems to have worried unduly about. The man was Thomas Bowdler who censored Shakespeare to save readers the indignity of pondering the naughty bits. Oh well,  “Learning all the time” as Benny Hill said to the pretty girl on the park bench.

Ideas spring forth from the pages of this book. It should be required reading for…well…everyone. I’ve written on top of one essay (I never write in books – I hate defacing them but it was the only way to keep up with him) “What’s the word for using French terms in English?” I’ve no doubt Hitchens could have told me. Are they “bon mots”? Some of the examples I found are “hyprocrite lecteur” which means “hypocritical reader”, an idea I find very interesting. He juxtaposes “verisimilitude” with “realism” and wonders why Graham Greene used the former and not the latter. The idea is that one word is never quite the same as another, that there is no such thing as a true synonym; at least, I think that’s the idea.

On once familiar subjects, Hitchens is illuminating. That’s a word that’s used a lot in blurbs but it’s accurate. The rise of Hitler is dealt with forensically but chillingly and I can imagine that many, many readers will find things there to make them think again about Nazism and the Second World War. Hitler was once given a choice on a building site between quitting or being thrown off the scaffold: he quit but imagine if his fellow workers had carried out their threat. And the reason for it? Too much blathering about politics and what was wrong with the country.