Friday, 6 January 2012

Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens

Lowdown: Instructions and inspiration to a would be dissident.
It’s hard for anyone’s death to bring tears to my eyes, let alone a person I have never met and a person who never heard of me. But the loss of Christopher Hitchens, as predictable as it was, did significantly stir me. The thoughts it triggered made me realize I would be a better person if I was to read more of Hitchens’ stuff. Taking immediate steps, I downloaded an allegedly inspiring little book by Hitchens – 2001’s Letters to a Young Contrarian.
Apparently, this book belongs to a series of titles in the series of “letters to a young something”; the series even includes, god forbid, Letters to a Young Catholic. I have no idea what format these other books are built around, but Hitchens’ is actually written in the form of personal letters addressed to X – as in you, the reader.
The letters take us through a journey of what it means to be dissident in Hitchens’ eye. The starting point is with explanations on the type of calling that this represents – not something you do, but rather something you are. Hitchens then moves along to provide example for proper forms of dissent, many of which are based on personal examples of his. This involves matters of expression, including a lengthy discussion on the use of humor. The book closes off with an inspirational summary.
You might notice I have used the phrase “inspire” more than once already, and that is no coincidence. Letters to a Young Contrarian is, indeed, a very inspiring book. I was touched by it: I was touched by the descriptions of Hitchens’ own wars, and then his projection on what wars the young dissenters who read the book will be fighting. According to Hitchens, the next big war to be fought is the war of a globalized world where many powers of old are doing their best to stick to the ways of the past so as to protect their power source. How prophetic can a person be? In a single sentence, Hitchens managed to bring the contemporary struggles for knowledge sharing in the age of the Internet (e.g., pirates vs. copyright holders and freedom of speech fighters such as Wikileaks) together with global warming under the same umbrella.
By far the most inspirational aspect of Letters to a Young Contrarian was the comparison I could not avoid making between this would be contrarian blogger and the one Hitchens models in his book. I may be flattering myself too much here, but the similarities seem too obvious to be a fluke: this whole writing is being feeling, the matter of holding strong opinions and not being afraid to express them, or the matter of standing up for what one believes in even if those beliefs come at a personal cost and even if they annoy important people (I just had such a brawl with my family, who did not like what I had to say about their country – see here and here). Most of all, it’s about that conviction that hopefully forces me not to stand by when something bad, like some sort of an injustice, happens.
Letters to a Young Contrarian is not devoid of faults, though. Personally, I found Hitchens’ prose to be rather annoying. The man is obviously a master of his language, but I am not; he kept on sending me to the dictionary at the rate of twice per page, and that terribly impacted on the flow of reading (score one for the Kindle's built in dictionary!). I realize the problem is with me more than with Hitchens, but I maintain that a clearly readable book is the better way of doing things. Hitchens’ colleague in many matters, Richard Dawkins, is an example for the style I look for: a writer who can express the most complex of ideas in such an easily readable manner that my grandmother would have an easy time understanding him. From her grave.
I had many arguments with myself on the score I should give Letters to a Young Contrarian, the direct result of my ebbing and flowing sentiments towards Hitchens’ writing style. What I have no doubt about is that Hitchens is an inspirational philosopher, one of the greatest of our times; I will therefore give him credit and go with 4 out of 5 stars to this book.
Regardless of the score, it is very clear to me I should be reading more of Hitchens. Just the same, it is clear to me the world has lost a major asset this past December.

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