Reading Christopher Hitchens reading

Paul Wells on Hitchens why matters

The joke’s on all of us who are left behind to take the measure of Christopher Hitchens, who died yesterday, because of course the measure can’t be taken. The arms won’t reach around. We feel the loss of Hitchens so keenly because he had far more imitators than peers. The imitators fail because the model is so imposing.

Louts who love to start a fight and think it’s clever to parrot the fashionable heterodoxies of the day are a dime a dozen. Hitchens matters because he was so much more than the sum of his clichés. Take away any part of the legend — his campaign against Mother Teresa and, later, all of religion; his support for the Iraq war; his certainty that if there are war criminals on this Earth, Henry Kissinger was one of them; his battle with esophageal cancer, both public and dignified — and you would still be left with someone larger than life.

His method was simple:

1. Read everything.

2. Draw your own conclusions.

Just about everyone prefers to skip the first step. Most have trouble with the second. Readers of this autumn’s big Hitch compendium, Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens may be surprised at how little polemic it contains. Anyone looking for 700 pages of harangues against Christ or Islam or Bill Clinton must look elsewhere (though they won’t have to look far; he wasn’t shy about serving up harangues).

The collection begins with some essays in American history, including a chapter on Abraham Lincoln that draws a bold but plausible connection between Lincoln’s relationship with his father and his opposition to slavery. He moves on in every direction, with sharp discussions of Dickens, Flaubert, Isaac Newton, Hitler (“I treasure one episode, in the clotted pages of Mein Kampf, above all others…”), Philip Larkin and plenty more. Every piece is informed by a spirit of inquiry.

We used to have a “book” columnist at Maclean’s — OK, it was Mark Steyn, and soon enough we stopped pretending he was here to write about books — who was delighted to announce, week after week, that he had found another book that proved he was right about everything. That’s not how Hitchens rolled. He got the thing about Lincoln’s father from Lincoln, not from Hitchens. He wrote about it so you could share something he learned about Lincoln, not about Hitchens. Christopher Buckley’s Hitchens remembrance at The New Yorker‘s website includes this:

During the last hour I spent with Christopher, in the Critical Care Unit at M. D. Anderson, he struggled to read a thick volume of P. G. Wodehouse letters. He scribbled some notes on a blank page in spidery handwriting.

Some might ask: What the hell? He was dying. What good could Wodehouse letters do him? And who were the notes for?

But of course the answer is, the thing itself was worth doing. Expanding the range of his inquiry, digging deeper, engaging with the minds he admired most. Hitchens spent much of his life offering everyone his answers on any subject, but they would not have mattered so much if he had not also been such a ravenous asker of questions.

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