Political observer, writer, polemicist, religious baiter, firebrand who never minced his words, famously writing the most overtly disparaging obituary of Jerry Falwell, died in 2011 of oesophageal cancer. Shortly before his death, this book was re- released as the most comprehensive collection of the writings of a single contemporary figure.
It is a hefty volume and even on kindle is a lengthy read for extended train journeys but the short nature of the overwhelming majority of the essays means it feels a relatively quick read. I must admit to skipping essays that had no interest to me, people I had never heard of, or after a page or two I found that I simply wasn’t interested enough to know more.
As Hitchens wrote on a great many subjects, the editors thought it wise to break them down into categories. The first section is on the politics and history of his adopted country for example: the USA whet he moved in the 1980s.
Even within these broad categories they are as varied as observations on Thomas Jefferson, why Mark Twain was such a radical, and secret women’s book clubs in Iran that read classic literature such as Lolita and Ulysses. Hitchens was at his best when at his most caustic and that is why my favourite in this section is “America the Banana Republic” in a scathing takedown of the mess that led up to the 2008 banking crisis. It also tackles
Part two is a mix of commentaries on such figures as Karl Marx, Samuel Johnson, flaws in Isaac Newton’s gravity law and Charles Dickens’ darker side. It largely concerns book reviews though, and few of them held my interest that much. Biographies are so rarely my thing. The section finishes on an interesting analysis of Harry Potter and the English enjoyment of the public-school based fiction to which Potter harkens back to.
Part three has, amongst other things, his famous essay on why women are not funny (now I have read the essay I still say Hitch was wrong about his core premise, even though he made some good solid points for why women don’t need to be funny), a critique of the existing and suggested list of new commandments, and a scathing yet amusing viewpoint on Prince Charles.
Part four had a number of articles on the history of the world politics behind the problems of Europe, the middle east and far east, particularly Afghanistan. He writes quite a bit about Afghanistan and the mess that the west made of it, offering a fascinating insight away from the right wing jingoistic rhetoric and left wing doom-mongering. Most amusingly titled here is North Korea: A nation of racist dwarves. He offers a critical takedown of Benazzir Bhutto, largely held up as a champion of secular and female empowerment in the Islamic world. Hitchens paints a flawed picture of a Taliban-supporting politically untrustworthy, almost compulsive liar, who could easily herself have become a cruel despot if given the chance.
Part five is a collection of book reviews of memoirs, biographies and non-fiction volumes about 20th century dictators. Much of this section held no interest for me and therefore I paid it little attention. Neither had I heard of most of the figures but there were a couple about Hitler and the end of WWII.
Part six is everything about writing, art and literature and it invariably descends into religion and politics too. When the King Saved God is a fascinating examination of the power of words by looking at the King James Bible. Hitchens despite being an atheist – was all too happy to push the importance of this English document (and made references to the beauty of its language). This section really appealed to a writer and reader like me :)
A remarkable collection of a remarkable man and a must if you want a collection of his best writings in one volume.