Christopher Hitchens: a name that conjures up many images; the cultured, well spoken Englishman. The relentless debater. The politically and economically educated. A man who comes across in conversation in such a way that forces you to conclude that he has read every single book within existence.
This time he writes in a way that he never has. In this book (Letters to a young contrarian) he shares eighteen written letters addressed to his The new school in New York university student(s?) upon the subjects so broad and distinctly different as politics, economics, religion, culture, argument, rebellion, playing Devil’s advocate in the sainthood trial of Mother Teresa, exposing Bill Clinton, suing Henry Kissinger for public slander, without failing to mention writers of admirable merits such as George Orwell, Emile Zola, Rosa Luxemburg, David Hume, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill, Sir Karl Popper, Rosa Parks and countless others as the people he looks upon as fellow humanists.
Just as the ‘Letters to a young‘ series contains many fantastic writers who give worthy advice to all ages, so does Hitchens allude to one of the greatest known: Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘Letters to a young poet‘ where he tells a fan that in order to continue writing and write well, you must look into yourself and find out: Do I need to write? If your answer is yes, I would die if I couldn’t. Then you should write. After mentioning this Hitchens (Whether unwittingly or on purpose) unleashes his most inspiring words of advice: “With much less eloquence, this is what I have been telling writing classes for years. You must feel not that you want to but that you have to. It’s worth emphasising, too, because there is a relationship, inexact to be sure but a relationship, between this desire or need and the ambition to rely upon internal exile, or dissent; the decision to live at a slight acute angle to society.” (p.16)
Each letter is brought to life with his characteristic literary talents: both cultured and heavily critical, but never rude without enough charm to allow your forgiveness. His sense of style within these letters never fails to amuse in each and every one of these letters. As if providing you with backed up knowledge, serious arguments and endlessly interesting anecdotes wasn’t enough; his humour shines through. His anecdotes run from his childhood teacher making a statement about God’s goodness in making the garden green to his later life in Journalism, being inside theocratic regimes and reporting on them. His wit and sharp silver tongue seem to have something to say about everything, and never has mockery been so amusing and sincere. This is a man who has earned the right to arrogance yet rarely indulges in it within these letters. Although when he does it merely across as modest via his cheeky English charm.
Not only does he have a habit of attacking what we take for granted as logical and ‘right’, he also takes time to assert how and why he thinks these things need to challenged. This comes out best when he takes the subject of confronting a friend and discussing beliefs: “One must have the nerve to assert that, while people are entitled to their illusions, they are not entitled to a limitless enjoyment of them and they are not entitled to impose them upon others. Allow a friend to believe in a bogus prospectus or a false promise and you cease, after a short while, to be a friend at all. How dare you intervene? As well ask, how dare you not?” (p.82)
Only a writer of such a well defined sense of style could pull off such a feat of literary talent. The most admirable thing about these letters are the sheer scope of each one, not for a second are you struck by a man who doesn’t know what he is writing about. He is not merely happy to have you ask and question him, but to ask yourself and to seek the answer for yourself. If anyone was to be crowned with the title ‘Modern Socrates’, it would be Christopher Hitchens, and I see no one better to share letters among the young (and old alike). Those who find themselves unable to agree with popular opinion: Whether just for amusement or sincerity; those who are sceptical to the core, will find this book: whether in agreement with him or not; profoundly interesting and useful. For as he says himself so well “The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.” (p.3)