Tuesday, January 14, 2014

“Letters To A Young Contrarian” – Book Review



Set your phasers to Snarky, boys and girls – another Christopher Hitchens book was read on my recent vacation and I’m here to tell you all about “Letters To A Young Contrarian”.  A quick and relatively easy read (at least when compared to the rest of the author’s oeuvre), it’s not a bad choice for a vacation; while some of Hitchens’ other work can certainly be a bit meatier and more of a challenge when you might really be yearning for something more lightweight, this one is short (only 141 pages, to be specific) and won’t make your temples throb in the midday sun while you’re feeling a little tipsy from your umbrella-adorned poolside cocktail.   

In this tome, Hitchens takes an opportunity to teach his acolytes about the path less traveled.  Originally published in early 2001 – prior to September 11th of that year – Hitchens’ chilling accounts about nuclear war and Muslim terrorists were terribly prescient, in retrospect.  His form of atheism, which Hitchens insists on calling “anti-theism”, is discussed in some detail, serving as something of a prelude to his subsequent masterpiece, “god Is Not Great” (reviewed here).  As frequently occurs in Hitchens’ writings, he can be hilariously funny and weightily intellectual, often simultaneously. 

If I were to have one criticism of the book, it would be the fact that it is not organized very well – likely more the fault of the editor than the author.  Specifically, the chapters are numbered but without titles and there is neither a table of contents nor an index.  Some might understandably take issue with this observation – after all, the premise of the book is that it is supposed to be a series of letters the teacher sends to his student(s).  While I can certainly see the point, my response would merely be that this is, after all, a book and adding these accessories enhance both the readability and enjoyment of its readers. 

Also, some might be bothered by the fact that Hitchens commonly writes about topics which might be considered obscure and draws frequently upon esoteric references.  Such things, it should be acknowledged, are Hitchens’ trademarks.  Ultimately, something that can periodically be a challenging read can make for challenging reading (which, I would argue, would be a good thing rather than a bad thing).  You either abide this sort of writing or you don’t; then again, there are those of us who don’t merely abide it, we rejoice in it, because we know that it’s Hitchens at his pedantic best. 

For me, my favorite chapters in this book were 16 & 17, which contain a discourse on humor and boredom – essential concepts for any writer to keep his readers engaged.  It appears difficult for Hitchens to write advice for aspiring journalists without intimidating them at the same time; the author certainly does have a way of making his exploits, accomplishments and education seem like rightful boasting – and make no mistake about it, by the time of this book’s writing, Hitchens had surely earned himself enough in the way of “street cred” to be able to boast without either being questioned or mocked.

In reading “Letters To A Young Contrarian”, I found myself consumed with the idea that we would never again hear the perspective of this thought-provoking writer.  He was a master gadfly, curmudgeon and all-around troublemaker.  Hitchens’ incendiary opinions were as explosive as any Molotov cocktail.  We need him now more than ever. 

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