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October 15, 2012

Politically Incorrect Advice to the Young from William S. Burroughs, Remixed

 By Maria Popova

“Any old soul is worth saving at least to a priest, but not every soul is worth buying.”

It is in the tradition of every culture that its cultural icons would impart words of wisdom on its young. In ours, those have come from celebrated minds like E. O. Wilson’s advice to young scientists, Neil Gaiman’s advice to young artists, Jacqueline Novogratz’s advice to young graduates, and Christopher Hitchens’s advice to young contrarians. Joining them is William S. Burroughs with this deliciously remixed take on his famous, uncensored, and at times questionable advice to the young — which, if anything, underscores the importance of knowing when to and when not to take advice.

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August 29, 2012

Christopher Hitchens: an impossible act to follow

Filed under: Authors — Tags: , , , — Bookblurb @ 6:50 pm

Christopher Hitchens, the influential writer who died last year, approached the end with his customary wit and charisma intact – and his wife always by his side. Carol Blue recalls their final months together.

Onstage, my husband was an impossible act to follow.

If you ever saw him at the podium, you may not share Richard Dawkins’s assessment that “he was the greatest orator of our time”, but you will know what I mean – or at least you won’t think, “She would say that, she’s his wife.”

Offstage, my husband was an impossible act to follow.

At home at one of the raucous, joyous, impromptu eight-hour dinners we often found ourselves hosting, where the table was so crammed with ambassadors, hacks, political dissidents, college students and children that elbows were colliding and it was hard to find the space to put down a glass of wine, my husband would rise to give a toast that could go on for a stirring, spellbinding, hysterically funny 20 minutes of poetry and limerick reciting, a call to arms for a cause, and jokes. “How good it is to be us,” he would say in his perfect voice.

My husband is an impossible act to follow.

And yet, now I must follow him. I have been forced to have the last word.

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April 29, 2012

The sound and fury of book-prize brouhaha leaves literature nowhere

Arguably insouciant … How would Christopher Hitchens have reacted to his final book's failure to win an Orwell prize? Photograph: Eamonn Mccabe for the Guardian

As the fuss surrounding the Pulitzer and Orwell prizes shows, book awards are increasingly more about hype than substance.

By Robert McCrum

The great literary boom of 1980 to 2010 is over, but its glittering prizes still linger, like discarded party favours the morning after the night before. Hardly a day goes by without some new titbit of literary prize gossip, or speculation.

Last week, it was the brouhaha over the news that this year’s Pulitzer prize, one of the premier US literary trophies, would not be awarded in the fiction category.

Then came crowd-pleasing advance publicity for the People’s book prize (promoted by Frederick Forsyth and the late Beryl Bainbridge).

And on Wednesday, new depths were plumbed in reports that the Orwell prize jury had “snubbed” the late Christopher Hitchens by not shortlisting his final book of essays, Arguably. (I bet they’re shaking their heads up on Parnassus about that one.)

Really, it’s a shame Hitchens is no longer around to make hay with the ideas that: a) he was troubled by prizes; b) he had somehow always hankered after the Orwell trophy; and c) there can be any meaning whatever in handing out posthumous awards to books whose authors are beyond the reach of lunch, dinner, and especially critics.


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January 27, 2012

Alain de Botton reveals plans for ‘temple to atheism’ in heart of London

Alain de Botton has said he wants to borrow the idea of awe-inspiring buildings from religion to give people a better sense of perspective on life. Photograph: Eamonn Mccabe

Writer wants to build tower to celebrate life on earth as an antidote to Richard Dawkins’ ‘destructive’ approach to atheism.

By Robert Booth

Plans to build a £1m “temple for atheists” among the international banks and medieval church spires of the City of London have sparked a clash between two of Britain’s most prominent non-believers.

The philosopher and writer Alain de Botton is proposing to build a 46-metre (151ft) tower to celebrate a “new atheism” as an antidote to what he describes as Professor Richard Dawkins’s “aggressive” and “destructive” approach to non-belief.

Rather than attack religion, De Botton said he wants to borrow the idea of awe-inspiring buildings that give people a better sense of perspective on life.

“Normally a temple is to Jesus, Mary or Buddha, but you can build a temple to anything that’s positive and good,” he said. “That could mean a temple to love, friendship, calm or perspective. Because of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens atheism has become known as a destructive force. But there are lots of people who don’t believe but aren’t aggressive towards religions.”

Dawkins criticised the project on Thursday, indicating the money was being misspent and that a temple of atheism was a contradiction in terms.

“Atheists don’t need temples,” the author of The God Delusion said. “I think there are better things to spend this kind of money on. If you are going to spend money on atheism you could improve secular education and build non-religious schools which teach rational, sceptical critical thinking.”

The spat came as De Botton revealed details of a temple to evoke more than 300m years of life on earth. Each centimetre of the tapering tower’s interior has been designed to represent a million years and a narrow band of gold will illustrate the relatively tiny amount of time humans have walked the planet.

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January 8, 2012

Charles Dickens’s Inner Child

HATS OFF TO DICKENS! The chronicler of Victorian life wrote more than 30 books.

While it’s tempting to see Charles Dickens as a fusion of his heroes and villains, on the great British novelist’s 200th birthday his true gifts should be recognized: a respect for childhood and a willingness to atone for his mistakes.

By Christopher Hitchens Illustration by André Carrilho

Those who study Charles Dickens, or who keep up the great cult of his admiration, had been leading a fairly quiet life until a few years ago. The occasional letter bobs to the surface, or a bit of reminiscence is discovered, or perhaps some fragment of a souvenir from his first or second American tour. The pages of that agreeable little journal The Dickensian remained easy to turn, with little possibility of any great shock. At least since The Invisible Woman, Claire Tomalin’s definitive, 1991 exposure of the other woman in Dickens’s life—the once enigmatic Nelly Ternan—there hasn’t been any scandal or revelation.

And then, in late 2002, The Dickensian carried a little bombshell of a tale: it seemed that in 1862, during Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s visit to London, he had met Dickens. And not only met him but elicited from him the exact admission that we would all have wanted the great man to make. Here is how it goes in En­glish, as summarized by Dostoyevsky in an 1878 letter to a certain Stepan Dimitriyevich Yanovsky. According to this, the two men met at the offices of Dickens’s own personal magazine, All the Year Round. And here’s how the confessional session went:

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December 28, 2011

Christopher Hitchens: “One should try to write as if posthumously.”

by Maria Popova

Hitch on death, public opinion, and freedom from inhibition.

Exactly a week ago today, the world lost Christopher Hitchens and cried a chorus of mourning. On June 4, 2010, three days before he became gravely ill, Hitchens took the stage at The New York Public Library’s excellent LIVE series (one of the many reasons I support NYPL monthly) to discuss his newly published memoir, Hitch 22. In this excerpt from his conversation with NYPL’s Paul Holdengräber, hair-raising in retrospect, Hitchens discussed the duality of his relationship with death, both a fiend of fear and a frontier of freedom.

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December 17, 2011

Christopher Hitchens has died: Fighter, doubter, provocateur

Photos: Christopher Hitchens. Credit: Christian Witkin TwelveBooks

Christopher Hitchens has died at age 62. From around the Web, notes on the death of Hitchens, essayist, provocateur, American:

— By Richard Fausset

David Frum:

A friend of theirs once took Christopher Hitchens and his wife Carol Blue to dinner at Palm Beach’s Everglades Club, notorious for its exclusion of Jews.

“You will behave, won’t you?” Carol anxiously asked Christopher on the way into the club.

No dice. When the headwaiter approached, Christopher demanded: “Do you have a kosher menu?”

Christopher was never a man to back away from a confrontation on behalf of what he considered basic decency. Yet it would be wrong to remember only the confrontational side.

Christopher was also a man of exquisite sensitivity and courtesy, dispensed without regard to age or station. On one of the last occasions I saw him, my wife and I came to drop some food –- lamb tagine -– to sustain a family with more on its mind than cooking. Christopher, though weary and sick, insisted on painfully lifting himself from his chair to perform the rites of hospitality. He might have cancer, but we were still guests -– and as guests, we must have champagne.

Graydon Carter, Vanity Fair:

He was a man of insatiable appetites — for cigarettes, for scotch, for company, for great writing, and, above all, for conversation. That he had an output to equal what he took in was the miracle in the man. You’d be hard-pressed to find a writer who could match the volume of exquisitely crafted columns, essays, articles, and books he produced over the past four decades. …

Christopher was the beau ideal of the public intellectual. You felt as though he was writing to you and to you alone. And as a result many readers felt they knew him. Walking with him down the street in New York or through an airplane terminal was like escorting a movie star through the throngs.

Benjamin Schwarz, the Atlantic:

I met Christopher (never Chris) in 1997. Perry Anderson, a mutual friend, had invited us to debate the wisdom of American intervention in the Balkans. We were, unsurprisingly, on opposing sides — a position that all his friends have experienced, formally or informally.  Hitch’s friends were comrades always; but allies only occasionally — that was a role impossible to hold consistently.

Hitch, an idealist committed to protecting human rights and to putting thugs in their place, embraced a muscular internationalism consistent with the stand he’d taken on the Falklands war (in 1982, Christopher, a then-uncompromising socialist, was at one with Mrs. Thatcher) and that he would take on the two wars against Saddam Hussein. I held to my usual parsimonious view of the national interest, and so our debate fell into a well-worn groove.

Early on I made a smart-sounding point, using a recondite historical analogy, which the audience — largely anti-interventionist — liked. But 10 minutes later, although the argument had moved on, it dawned on me that I’d scored a cheap shot, and I said so, explaining why my facile analogy didn’t hold water. Christopher held me in his gaze, touched his right hand to his chest (one of his characteristic gestures), and gave me an almost imperceptible bow. That was it for us. I had passed the only test that mattered to him, one in which he touchingly, anachronistically conflated intellectual honesty with a decidedly masculine, martial sense of honor. more

October 13, 2011

A Voice, Still Vibrant, Reflects on Mortality

Michael Stravato for The New York Times Christopher Hitchens, after being released from the Texas hospital where he was treated for esophageal cancer.


Christopher Hitchens, probably the country’s most famous unbeliever, received the Freethinker of the Year Award at the annual convention of the Atheist Alliance of America here on Saturday. Mr. Hitchens was flattered by the honor, he said a few days beforehand, but also a little abashed. “I think being an atheist is something you are, not something you do,” he explained, adding: “I’m not sure we need to be honored. We don’t need positive reinforcement. On the other hand, we do need to stick up for ourselves, especially in a place like Texas, where they have laws, I think, that if you don’t believe in Jesus Christ you can’t run for sheriff.”

Mr. Hitchens, a prolific essayist and the author of “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything,” discovered in June 2010 that he had Stage 4 esophageal cancer. He has lately curtailed his once busy schedule of public appearances, but he made an exception for the Atheist Alliance — or “the Triple A,” as he called it — partly because the occasion coincided almost to the day with his move 30 years ago from his native England to the United States. He was already in Houston, as it happened, because he had come here for treatment at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, where he has turned his 12th-floor room into a temporary library and headquarters.

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September 3, 2011

The New Atheism

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Writers such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens tend to equate religion with fundamentalism. A more nuanced examination of religious belief can be found in modern fiction.

By James Wood

In the last 10 years or so, the rise of American evangelicalism and the menace of Islamist fundamentalism, along with developments in physics and in theories of evolution and cosmogony, have encouraged a certain style of aggressive, often strident atheistic critique. Books such as Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great have sold in the millions. Beyond the unlikely success of these books, there has also been the spread of atheist and secularist websites and blogs, some of them intellectually respectable, others more dogmatic and limited (ie, pretty atrocious). The events of 11 September 2001 were the obvious spur. In The End of Faith, the American writer Sam Harris argued that as long as America remains swamped in Christian thinking, it will never defeat militant Islamism, since one backward religious system cannot prevail over another backward religious system. Atheism would be the key to unlock this uneasy stalemate. Academics such as Dawkins and Daniel Dennett have broader projects, perhaps – for them, the removal of our religious blinkers will result in a proper appreciation of the natural world, and of science’s ability to describe and decode it.

I can’t be the only reader who finds himself in broad agreement with the conclusions of the New Atheists, while disliking some of the ways they reach them. For these writers, and many others, “religion” always seems to mean either fundamentalist Islam or American evangelical Christianity. Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and the more relaxed or progressive versions of Christianity are not in their argumentative sights. Along with this curious parochialism about the varieties of religious belief comes a simplistic reading of how people actually hold those beliefs. Terry Eagleton and others have rightly argued that, for millions of people, religious “belief” is not a matter of just totting up stable, creedal propositions .

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August 12, 2011

How to be a faster writer.

By Michael Agger

Hunched over my keyboard, I’m haunted by anecdotes of faster writers. Christopher Hitchens composing a Slate column in 20 minutes—after a chemo session, after a “full” dinner party, late on a Sunday night. The infamously productive Trollope, who used customized paper! “He had a note pad that had been indexed to indicate intervals of 250 words,” William F. Buckley told the Paris Review. “He would force himself to write 250 words per 15 minutes. Now, if at the end of 15 minutes he hadn’t reached one of those little marks on his page, he would write faster.” Buckley himself was a legend of speed—writing a complete book review in crosstown cabs and the like.

I remember, too, a former colleague who was blazingly fast. We would be joking at lunch—”Imagine if David Foster Wallace had written a children’s book”—and there it would be in my inbox, 15 minutes later. Not a perfect draft, but publish-it-on-your-blog good. He could sit down at the keyboard and toss off Chopin or Ragtime, while I was banging away at Chopsticks and making lots of mistakes. Dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-du-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-du-dun-dun-dun-dun-dun-DAH!

It’s no secret that writing is hard … but why can’t I be one of those special few for whom it comes easily? What am I doing wrong? Why haven’t I gotten any faster?

In search of the secret of quickness, I started with a Malcolm Gladwell passage that’s always piqued me. In Outliers, he discusses the now famous 10,000-hour rule—the amount of time it takes to achieve true mastery—and quotes the neurologist Daniel Levitin: “In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concern pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again.” Fiction writers? Really? more

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