Journalist Christopher Hitchens. (Bill Tiernan / Associated…)
Through his Vanity Fair essays, his books and his television appearances, Christopher Hitchens has become one of our leading provocateurs, saying what many of us might be thinking (though he's more articulate) but are afraid to utter. Public intellectual, pundit, whatever, he is frequently thought-provoking and almost always entertaining, if occasionally offensive. So as he deals with a diagnosis of esophageal cancer, an admirer and fellow writer, Windsor Mann, has collected many of Hitchens' most piquant remarks and we have them now in "The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism."
This isn't a collection of his essays and other works but rather a book of quotations, many of them brief, and it makes for easy reading or perusing. Hitchens devotees will be most rewarded. But others, particularly curious types who haven't paid Hitchens much attention, can treat the book as a tip sheet (it kindly includes citations to the original essays and such) and track down an article or a relevant book.
Hitchens, depending on where one stands, is often either mean or brutally honest, as in these examples:
On George W. Bush: "He's unusually incurious, abnormally unintelligent, amazingly inarticulate, fantastically uncultured, extraordinarily uneducated, and apparently quite proud of all these things."
Mike Huckabee: "A moon-faced true believer and anti-Darwin pulpit-puncher from Arkansas who doesn't seem to know the difference between being born again and born yesterday."
Ronald Reagan: ""So Reagan has Alzheimer's. How could they tell?"
And, then, his take on motherhood: "Is there anything so utterly lacking in humor as a mother discussing her new child? She is unboreable on the subject."
On a few topics, the succinctness of this volume doesn't work. Hitchens has pilloried Mother Teresa and Mahatma Gandhi, and the quotes here don't really do justice to his surprising broadsides.
Fellow drinkers, especially those without esophageal cancer, will enjoy Hitchens' pro-booze rants, though on this topic he is less smart than smart aleck:
"Many people who might otherwise have died of boredom and irritation, or taken a running jump at themselves, have been kept going by a steady intake of toxins and by the low company this naturally forces them to keep."
Hitchens, in frat-boy mode, even brags about his intake:
"It wasn't all that easy to get a reputation for boozing when you worked in and around old Fleet Street, where the hardened hands would spill more just getting the stuff to their lips than most people imbibe in a week, but I managed it."
And he ridicules the presumed moderation of one former drinker:
"Bush, if anything, follows the pattern of many Christian moralizers by overstating how bad he was, and how close to the Devil's claws. One DUI, one face-off with his father (the famous mano-a-mano episode) and a few confrontations with the lady of the house. You call that serious drinking?"
Hitchens, author of "God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything," is at his smartest — or most maddening, depending on one's beliefs — when skewering non-atheists:
"The Gospels are useful … in re-demonstrating the same point as their predecessor volumes, which is that religion is man-made."
"I have been called arrogant in my time, and hope to earn the title again, but to claim that I am privy to the secrets of the universe and its creator — that's beyond my conceit."
Being a provocateur, of course, is more work than simply being loud and opinionated. And Hitchens shows his intelligence and his considerable faculty with words, on gay marriage:
"Make no mistake: This is an argument about the socialization of homosexuality, not the homosexualization of society. It demonstrates the spread of conservatism, not radicalism, among gays."
And finally, from a criticism of Richard Nixon, comes this gem of wordplay that could be all about Hitchens:
"The unlived life is not worth examining."
Bailey is a Chicago-based writer.