I started Christopher Hitchens’ memoir Hitch 22 over a month ago. My normal book-a-week pace came to a grinding halt when I realized that I was not worthy to the task of reading it. His is clearly above mine. His literary references are unfamiliar, and for the most part, the people he mentions are only marginally known to me. And, he’s much smarter than me. I compare the experience to my recent stint as a graduate student trying desperately to understand a required text by doing secondary reading, looking up unfamiliar words, and reading history for context and background information. I did the same with Hitch 22. I read it on a Kindle while sitting at a computer with a notebook. It was active reading. I looked up each new word (114 in total), and each book, person, or event mentioned. It was tough going, but never a slog. I created a “HitchDeck” in my iPhone’s flashcard application to help me keep track of the new words.
A good book teaches us about ourselves. Hitch 22 taught me that I may have wasted my life. When I look back at the choices I’ve made, the jobs I’ve held, and my general lack of interest in all things beyond reading science fiction and my own small little satisfying world, there is simply no comparison to the life he writes about. I don’t feel less of a man for it, no, instead I admire the difference. Hitchens was working for the cause of socialism at an age when I was fixing aircraft and had no understanding of the concept of socialism beyond what I had learned in a high school civics class. He was traveling the world at an age when I was biking to work to save a few pennies. He attended some of the best schools in the world while I barely graduated from high school and had no ambition for higher education. It’s all relative, my awaking happen at age 35, I’ve been playing catch up ever since.
I will be surprised If you can read Hitch 22 without examining your own life. That’s what makes it different and what also makes it unique. I don’t normally think this deeply when I read, and I honestly enjoyed doing so. I also enjoyed examining his life, while at the same time, examining my own. But I most enjoyed examining his thinking and his development as a thinker, which is truly different than the average Joe, and I’m willing to bet, it’s different than many of his peers.
If you are looking for insight into Hitchens’ atheism, you may find some stories that will enlighten, but you will find far more for which you will marvel. His atheism is lifelong and infuses his life and experiences. It is easy to see the link between his hatred of the totalitarian state and the absolute power of religion. They are two side of the same coin and rise repeatedly as themes throughout the book, often linked as in the case of Saddam Hussein and his late move toward fanatical Islam.
Watching his development as a thinker is inspiring. He learns by doing. Iraq is a good example. He went early and often. If he wanted to know what was really going on, he reached out to friends or jumped on a plane and then border hopped into the heart of the story. How many people have the drive to do this? I would venture a guess that few people who are not paid reporters on assignment take the risk just see see what is happening on the for themselves. His notebooks served to document his experiences and synthesize his thinking during his excursions. He is a reality driven thinker who digs for facts by personally experiencing important events and that sets him apart from most of his peers.
His gradual move from the political left to the neoconservative right was the real story. We started by leaning about his political thinking and his alignment with the socialist left. Chapter after chapter builds toward a war driven drift toward the right, based on self-analysis and the examination of friendships with influential thinkers on the left. How many of us are rational enough to look closely at what we believe and then walk in the other direction when the facts lead us there? I would like to think I am, although besides my move to atheism I have no proof. I realized that I had not been critical enough in my political efforts. That my focusing on the corruption of Republican politics by the religious right, I had closed my mind to the illogical positions of the political left. I listen while the left blamed the terrorism of 9/11 not on Islam but instead on the policies of America, and that we had somehow asked for the attack by way of our policies. I knew this to be wrong at the time, but did nothing to challenge it, nor did it enter into my thinking. In the end, I can honestly say that I took notes while reading Hitch 22 and took note of my own failings too. I will not let this go again. Few books touch me in his way. Most simply skim across my mind leaving a few seeds behind. Hitch 22 planted a garden.
What is missing is the deeply personal – his relationships with his own family are skipped over in such a way that the reader is left with the impression that they played no role in his life at all. We learn very little about his family life, his loves, wives, or children. There is no behind the scenes look at Hitches-the-romantic unless we count a brief foray into sex at single gender British boarding schools. We get no insight into how his profession affected his family or how his family played affected his professional life. With his days numbered, my guess is this task will fall to his biographer. I dare say he rates a good one. We also are allowed to see very little of his writing technique. Besides a brief description of his hard working and hard drinking routine, and his pride in never missing a deadline, we do not see how he manages this besides simply understanding that he writes 1000 printable words a day.
There is a chapter near the end where we learn about Hitchens’ impact on the life of a young American soldier and the soldier’s family. The story is a poignant reminder of the power of writing. I won’t spoil it here, you must read it for yourself. I will say that what we write can be important to other people. In fact, it can be life altering. I’ve experienced this through interactions with people on my blog, and for Hitches it was apparently a defining moment.
I spoke with my dear friend Rich today. We exchanged opinions on Hitch 22, he was brought to tears by the soldiers story, while I was merely choked up and had some dust in my eye. When is the last time a non-fiction book made you cry?
Buy the book. Read it.