Christopher Hitchens (1949 – 2011) was an author, journalist, and social commentator perhaps best known for his arguments against religion. Though religion was the subject of a vast majority of his debates, essays, and books, Hitchens also spoke and wrote a great deal about literature, culture and politics.
The work published in his book, “Arguably: Essays by Christopher Hitchens,” reflects his vast range of knowledge on numerous subjects. It is because of his role as an often infamous, yet undoubtedly intelligent public figure that a review of his work is appearing in this issue.
Hitchens first started writing “Mortality” while on a book tour for his memoir “Hitch 22.” During this tour, he was rushed to the hospital after suffering an attack of excruciating pain in his chest and thorax, which was diagnosed as side-effects of esophageal cancer.
“Mortality” tells Hitchens’ story of “living dyingly” as he liked to refer to it. It covers everything one would expect to see in a book about a man who has been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness that he knows he will most likely not beat. Hitchens never had the chance to finish the book before passing away in 2011. “Mortality” includes fragments of the book Hitchens had jotted down but not yet formulated in to chapters, as well as an afterword written by his wife, Carol Blue.
The book is expertly written, but that’s to be expected from a man who often stayed up all night drinking and entertaining friends, only to continue drinking after they left and still somehow manage to write essays that were published the next day with no need for a second draft. It has his characteristic wit and humor.
As it so often happened with Hitchens’ writing, the reader almost feels as if he were speaking directly to them. His ability to make his work feel so personal was one of his strongest skills as a writer, and it never faded as his illness took its toll on his body.
A phrase that Hitchens uses throughout the book is “I do not have a body, I am a body.” He writes that though he had always been aware of this fact, it had never stopped him from giving into his predilection for alcohol and cigarettes. The quote is one that tends to stick with the reader. I, too, am aware of the fact that I do not have a body, but that I am a body.
However, that has never stopped me from lighting a cigarette or pouring myself a glass of wine. Ever since I finished this book, I have been hyper aware of the abuse I have been putting myself through. It was an odd feeling to finish a chapter and then have a drink. Hitchens does not preach against delighting in such pleasures in “Mortality,” but the detail he gives of his illness would pop into my mind with each sip.
“Mortality” makes it clear that even in the face of death; Hitchens never shook from his beliefs. He stayed true to his antitheist viewpoint, and only mentioned converting in a sentence that never actually made it into the book: “If I convert it’s because it’s better that a believer dies than that an atheist does.”
Hitchens also refused to let his illness silence him in any way. When he lost the ability to speak, he continued to write. Even when writing itself became painful, he continued on until he passed away.
No matter how you feel about Hitchens as a person, I strongly recommend that you pick up a copy of this book. Sometimes people need a reminder that they are not invincible, that our bodies can and will eventually fail, and we will die. I do not believe this is a morbid thought, but rather one in which comfort can be found.
Reading about one man’s slow and painful death and his refusal to let it get in his way of living, (even if he was “living dyingly”) serves to remind us primates that we only have one life, so we may as well enjoy it while we can.