Chris's Reviews > Letters to a Young Contrarian

Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens
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's review
May 25, 2011

really liked it

I really liked this book, the title of which is a satirical nod to the more pure and poetic Letters To a Young Poet by Rainer Rilke (which I read right before this book). I found it to be fun, challenging, intelligent, and revealing. It was an interesting study into who Hitchens’ really is, trappings aside (mostly). A lot of speakers cloak their elitism and disdain for their opponents behind a flimsy façade of tolerance or courtesy, but Hitchens’ quiddity is that he says what he really means—and he revels in it. He despises political correctness for the most part (although his urbane wit, and endless qualifications and addendums for his discourtesies often amount to much the same thing), and his honesty and directness become the essential value of his ideas. He’s able to cut through all the rubbish of political double-talk with a surgeon’s precision. I’m not sure I’d characterize his boldness as courage, because I’m confident he gets paid well enough for his crassness (though it appears it isn’t always so safe), but there is something refreshing about the starkness of it all. He lays the matter bare, or rather his opinions of the matter—which are often much more entertaining. And I don’t think he’s as hateful and bitter as some suppose. I think he’s often exhibitionist in his excoriation of ignorance, but I’ve come to believe that he’s less concerned with unintelligence than the smug and haughty defense of ignorance with which people fortify their ideas. I must admit I’m less interested in Hitchens’ own ideas than in the way he is able to deconstruct an idea and discover its genesis.

Hitchens obviously has had quite a few enlightening and shocking experiences while associating with those who have made a stand for civil rights across the world, and who have suffered for what they believe in. He appears to really care about those who are trying to bring about positive change in the world. In some of his affection and vocal support for dissenters against unjust government, he’s actually quite noble. His political savvy is mesmerizing. He is an activist of sorts, and he doesn’t forget the history parties try to conveniently bury for their next election. There’s no pulling the wool over his eyes, and he makes you sense the hidden graves we unknowingly tread on that built up our society…often in cold blood.

His farcical device of pretending to answer a mentees letters is both funny as a shtick, but also funny in the sense that it is always contains a self-inflicted jibe at the fact that he may not have a lot of people standing in line to ask his advice—especially not any young, aspiring ‘contrarians’ anyway, who, by definition, avoid conforming to anyone else’s ideas. No adoring fans ask for a back-stage pass to be told to “F*** off” by an anti-celebrity.

Unfortunately half the book was a pretty bland showboating of his grasp of politics and obscure international events. And it was oddly prosaic—even passages of poetry that he quoted came across as flat and merely descriptive. I was actually let down by the lack of profundity of some of it. It almost made me laugh a couple times when I tried to re-read some passages over and over again for a deeper meaning, only to realize every ‘sense’ was just idling on the surface.

But, you know, I actually decided that I like him. I think he’s more kind than he lets on. Like an ostensibly grumpy old man that softens up, and even has a self-sacrificing concern for you, once you get to know him. He’s not as nice as he probably is good, and his actions in life have betrayed a better man than a writer. And who can blame him for his cold exterior towards hypocrisy, bigotry, idolatry (celeb-worship), and old-fashioned ignorance in the guise of religious devotion. Sooner blame him for having too much fun with a persona half-created by a gullible and cowering public too ready to burn any non-conformist at the stake.

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