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07:17 pm: 2015 Reading Challenge: Hitchens' Letters to a Young Contrarian (nonfiction)
I'm a big fan of Christopher Hitchens' brain, though I wasn't always a fan of his mouth. Wicked smart guy. Wicked, smart tongue.* I'd never read any of his books, however, and that just seemed wrong. I've read plenty of his articles and listened to his debates, and always found him entertaining (he's not very nice, but that hardly seems his goal). I've enjoyed epistolary novels (Frankenstein, Dracula, The Screwtape Letters, and - far more recently - Where'd You Go, Bernadette?) and books of letters (EB White, the Brontës, et al.). Hitchens' Letters to a Young Contrarian seemed like it would be both a good introduction to Hitchens and an interesting blend of the genres... being letters to a fictitious recipient, including responses to fictitious responses (thus, more like Screwtape Letters than the others).

The book is apparently a part of a series (Art of Mentoring) that also includes Letters to a Young Chef, Letters to a Young Mathematician, and Letters to a Young Catholic. The last of these may have bothered Hitchens, an avowed anti-theist (not atheist, he asserts in Contrarian), though he may have enjoyed the irony or, if Weigel (author of Young Catholic) wrote well and argued intelligently, the book itself. Hitchens was nothing if not open-minded, and he referred repeatedly in Contrarian to having learned a lot from religion classes in his youth.

He was also somewhat intellectually precious (in the sense of affectedly or excessively refined). He name-drops the intelligentsia, quotes obscure sources (often in Latin, sometimes in French or Italian, never with translations), and is blatantly snooty about people he considers beneath his level (most of the world, though in fairness to him, he doesn't judge by such criteria as wealth, position, or degrees, but rather by truth, logic, and conviction). He revels in his snootiness, clarifying in one letter that he used to take umbrage at accusations of elitism but doesn't any more.

Allrighty then.

He also wrote that "my parents were too intelligent to be encumbered by prejudice" (page 106), which we know is horse-hooey. (I just took an Unconscious Bias course at work yesterday, so this is particularly fresh in my mind. No one is free of prejudice... even your beloved parents, Mr. Hitchens.)

I learned a great deal from this small book (including more about Dreyfus, about whom I was appallingly ignorant, which is unforgivable given the huge influence research on the Sam Sheppard trial had on my life!). I have to admit to an unfortunate foible: I'm particularly fussy about the language of self-proclaimed intellectual elites. Contrarian has a couple of typos, which is mildly irksome but possibly an editor's fault (though you'd think either Hitchens or the editor would have used spellcheck). He also uses the idiom "try and" instead of "try to." I know British editors are generally more tolerant of this variant, but I would have expected Hitchens to show a preference for precision.

Hitchens' most annoying quirk (in his writing; I won't try to prioritize the quirks of his personality) is his use of scare quotes. This tendency is further muddled by the appropriate use of quotation marks in his first letter, where he's specifically talking about the definitions of words. Blargh.

In any case, Letters to a Young Contrarian is certainly worth a read, and has encouraged me to seek out other, longer works of Hitchens.


* The importance of punctuation! And regional usage!

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