Now in Paperback: Arguably
by Christopher Hitchens
The transition from hardcover to paperback is wistful enough under ordinary circumstances; the author has changed priorities, updated clothes and hairstyles, moved on to another project which is now the favored child. The old book is an alternate stream of income, which is always nice, but it’s also yesterday’s news, a distraction from the main event. Reviews of paperback reprints get no thanks in this dog-eat-dog environment, despite the fact that paperback reprints inevitably introduce the author and the book to a wider audience than was reached by the hideously overpriced hardcover.
How much more wistful, then, the appearance of Arguably by Christopher Hitchens (in an incredibly flimsy paperback by Twelve, an imprint of Grand Central Publishing), marking as it does the first paperback reprint of the author’s work since his death in December of 2011. When Open Letters Monthly reviewed the hardcover release of Arguably, the reviewer could day-dream about one day sharing a drink with the ailing but still very much with us Hitchens. Now, the book sits on the night stand like a bright yellow tombstone.
Until you open it, that is. Then, almost from the first instant, the reader is once again subsumed in the patented Hitchens surround-sound schtick. Hitchens read capaciously and without the slightest hint of snobbery: Ian Fleming and the Flashman novels were on equal footing with the stories of Saki or the poetry of the King James Bible – at least in terms of the warrant for a priori dismissal. Better than two-thirds of the hundred or so pieces reprinted in this paperback volume revolve around literary subjects in one orbit or another, and even in the remainder (the numerous bits from Slate, for instance, often heated rejoinders to current news of the day) amply reflect the fact that despite his ridiculous posturing with rifles and neckerchiefs while interviewing rebels in places like Pakistan (or stunts like having himself waterboarded), Hitchens was first and last a bookworm, someone for whom the charm and challenge of books was vital. He achieved, to his somewhat pleased chagrin, notoriety as a contrarian, but his judgements of books were as often as not predicated on a kind of mercy – as when this close reader of Orwell and Paine takes up his daughter’s copy of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows:
Greater authors – Arthur Conan Doyle most notably – have been in the same dilemma when seeking closure. And, like Conan Doyle, Rowling has won imperishable renown for giving us an identifiable hero and a fine caricature of a villain, and for making a fictional bit of King’s Cross station as luminous as a certain address on nearby Baker Street. It is given to few authors to create a world apart, and to populate it as well as illuminate it in the mind. As one who actually did once go to boarding school by steam train, at eight, I enjoyed reading aloud to children and coming across Diagon Alley and Grimmauld Place, and also shuddering at the memory of the sarcastic schoolmasters (and Privet Drives) I have known.
A first-rate ex tempore composer, he was adept at the art of the quick grab. Not many contemporary deadline-critics would have the confidence to open a piece like this:
When people in America say “no man is an island,” as Joan Didion once put it, they think they are quoting Ernest Hemingway. But when Hemingway annexed the seductive words from John Donne’s Devotions, quoting the whole paragraph on his title page and borrowing from it one of the twentieth century’s most resonant titles, he did not literally mean to say that all funerals are the same or that all deaths are to be regretted equally. He meant that if the Spanish republic went under to fascism, we should all be the losers. It was a matter both of solidarity and of self-interest. Stand by your friends now, or be shamed (and deserted in your turn) later on.
He trusted (dared, maybe) readers to scramble after him at whatever pace he set, and they did, and many more will do so now, gingerly turning the pages of this new paperback. Hitchens could write (inaccurately in this case, about a personal friend who didn’t merit the praise) that “… he has raised the standard of essayistic reviewing, mounting guard over our muscular but vulnerable English language and registering fastidious pain whenever it is hurt or insulted.” But such an assessment is certainly true when applied to its own author – Hitchens the critic and thinker is interesting enough to make Hitchens the mere provocateur seem a bit predictable, and it’s Hitchens the critic and thinker who holds court so magnetically in Arguably.
He refers to Benjamin Franklin’s comments about the printed sermons of the Reverend Whitefield, specifically the prediction: litera scripta manet – the written word shall remain. This too is true.