The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism--The Very Best of Christopher Hitchens

Image of The Quotable Hitchens: From Alcohol to Zionism--The Very Best of Christopher Hitchens
Release Date: 
May 9, 2011
Da Capo Press
Reviewed by: 

Christopher Hitchens. The name alone is polarizing. Mentioning it causes some to spontaneously applaud, others to spontaneously combust. Some consider him to be the very definition of “intellectual,” while others attempt to contact Lou Dobbs to see if he can, by definition, be considered an illegal alien and sent back home to England.

No matter. Either way, Mr. Hitchens remains one of the more provocative and interesting men of letters left, and for this he must be cherished, even if, in his various missives in Vanity Fair, Slate, and The Nation, he manages to be, in turns, bombastic, nihilistic, viper-tongued, and just plain rude (note to the faint of heart: Should you run into Mr. Hitchens at a dinner party in the nation’s capitol, do not ask him his opinion of Mother Theresa—something that, for most of us at our various dinner parties would be a rather safe topic). Because the truth remains that the man is also thoughtful, insightful, truthful (from his point of view anyway—to an almost terrifying degree), and intelligent.

He is also the master of the mot, from bon to mal. Which, simply put, means that, even when you hate what he is saying, you can’t help but love the way he’s saying it.

Which is precisely the point behind The Quotable Hitchens, a gathering of the best of the man’s work; not the work as a whole—but snippets, the best soundbites of the Hitchens era.

As promised, they have been laid out alphabetically by editor Windsor Mann, who, with Mr. Hitchens’s full cooperation, also selected the quotes on topics, again as promised, ranging from Alcohol to Zionism.

But this is not a book to be read from first page to last. This is, instead, something to dip into in idle moments, those moments when blood sugar levels need to fall or blood pressure needs to suddenly rise.

Best way into the book, in this reader’s opinion, is by thinking for a moment of names of those who are the likely targets of a barb or two. And certainly the reader’s choice of Bill Clinton does not disappoint.

Indeed, Mr. Hitchens has so much to say about the former president that he has been divided into sub-topics, ranging from “Clinton, Bill and Iraq,” to “Clinton, Bill and Newt Gingrich,” (“These two bloated, Southern-strategizing, God-bothering, pot-smoking, self-pitying, draft-dodging, wife-cheating, Unreadable-book-writing, money-scrounging bigmouths and pseudo-intellectuals lean on each other like Pat and Mike, in a shame-free double-act where all the moves and gags are plotted in advance.”) to “Clinton, Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton,” to “Clinton, Bill and Cigars” (“Did he inhale this time?”).

And the target that brought the most attention of author Hitchens, Mother Theresa, is included here as well:

“Here is a woman who has already achieved canonization. This state of living sainthood might be defined as the miraculous condition of having all your actions judged by your reputation, instead of your reputation judged by your actions.”

My, my. For a thin book, The Quotable Hitchens has so much negative to say.

Does Ronald Reagan escape comment? No.

“So Reagan has Alzheimer’s. How could they tell?”

And George W. Bush? About him Mr. Hitchens writes: “His eyes are so close together he could use a monocle.”

About Pat Buchanan, he comments: “I do not think he is a Nazi. He is a solid, homegrown McCarthyite with proto-fascist tendencies. (He does not think that the Jews killed Christ, but he has the stout patrolman’s suspicion that they may not have told us everything they know.)”

About Jesse Helms, back in 1995 he spouted: “He used to remind me of an uneasy lesbian trapped in the body of a shifty boxing-gym trainer, but that was back when he still had some wit and some wits. Now he looks like a desperate old tortoise.”

About filmmaker Michael Moore, Mr. Hitchens quips: “I never know whether Moore is as ignorant as he looks, or even if that would be humanly possible.”

About artist Andy Warhol, he says: “Having been pronounced clinically dead twenty years too soon, Warhol was pronounced actually dead several years too early. He survives in our references, in our imagination, and in the relationship of his own sense of timing to ours. Just because he knew the price of everything doesn’t mean he didn’t know the value of some things.”

And about actress Vanessa Redgrave, he sneers: “In the popular mind, Vanessa Redgrave is probably the archetypal Cannes-on-minute-Nicaragua-the-next, Oscar-ceremony-grandstanding, petition-signing Hecuba and banshee of all time. Groupie of the Palestinians; sob sister for this and that; daughter of privilege; can’t be content with unpublished opinions.”

No one’s safe. Not Neville Chamberlain. Not Washington, DC, mayor Marion Barry. Certainly not Glenn Beck (“A tear-stained, semi-literate shock jock . . .”). And not John F. Kennedy, nor his brothers Teddy or Robert. Not playwright Lillian Hellman. Not the Left. Not the Right. Not Heaven nor Hell.

In all Creation it seems, only two, only Salmon Rushdie (“By his experiments with language and dialect and his conscription of musical themes, he has approached the closest to poetry in prose”) and Eleanor Roosevelt pass muster.

To First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, he writes a single valentine:

“Mrs. Roosevelt was simply introducing principle into politics, always trying to get her husband to do the unpopular or noncommercial thing. Whatever one thinks about Jim Crow or Republican Spain or desegregation of the Armed Forces, these were positions that required courage, and required her urging courage and principle on her husband.”

As unlikely a pair as they may seem, Mr. Hitchens himself has rather a lot in common with Mrs. Roosevelt. Like her, his gift is his ability to say and do the unpopular and noncommercial thing, to vote against his own privileged interests. And yet he cannot help himself—his is the compulsion to speak Truth to power, as well as to speak it to the powerless, the feckless, the sorrowful and so on. None can be spared Mr. Hitchens’s need to share this Truth just as none can be spared his need to tell the Truth about them.

The book is great fun, whether sampled by dipping in or swallowed whole and digested slowly, as a snake might do. The topics, from impotence to Buddhism to the Final Solution, engage the reader, possibly enrage the reader and then he moves on, because, like the accident of our own lives or the accidents, from banana peels to multi-car pile-ups, it is quite simply impossible to look away.

Mr. Hitchens even refuses to spare himself. In quotes taken from this razor-sharp writings in the pages of Vanity Fair on the subject of his own battle with cancer, he proves to be as merciless to himself as to others:

“I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient. Allow me to inform you, though, that when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don’t read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent soldier or revolutionary is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.”

With the very real possibility that he will not be with us for many years longer, it is perhaps a good time to revisit Mr. Hitchens in all his opinionated glory. The Quotable Hitchens is and will remain an excellent means by which those of us who have long valued his work can celebrate it at a moment’s notice and those new to his work now have a new source of material for their Facebook Page or for emblazoning on T-shirts.