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The Quotable Hitchens – from Alcohol to Zionism: the Very Best of Christopher Hitchens

The Quotable Hitchens - from Alcohol to Zionism: the Very Best of Christopher Hitchens
Edited by Windsor Mann
Da Capo Press, 332pp, £12.99

It often seems as if Christopher Hitchens has spent his life writing and speaking with a collection such as this in mind. His essays, reviews, lectures and TV appearances are distinguished by a permanent war against what Diderot called l'esprit de l'escalier, the moment when, as you leave the television studio or debating hall, the brilliant riposte you should have made a minute earlier occurs to you.

It is no coincidence that Hitchens's political and literary heroes - George Orwell, Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde and Thomas Paine - are among the best-represented figures in any dictionary of quotations. There are few contemporary writers from whose work it would be either possible or desirable to extract a book of quotes. Yet, because of Hitchens's irreverence, range and intellectual showmanship, this 332-page volume, edited by Windsor Mann, is an exception.

In the foreword, Hitchens's old friend Martin Amis lauds him as one of the most "terrifying rhetoricians" that the world has ever seen, adding: "I would back him against Cicero, against Demosthenes." Hitchens's greatest skill, however, lies in persistently asserting the ironic mind over the literal one, as in the cases of censorship ("If the stuff does indeed have a tendency to deprave and corrupt, why, then, the most depraved and corrupt person must be the censor who keeps a vigilant eye upon it"), greed ("Nobody is more covetous and greedy than those who have far too much") and social mobility in the United States ("If rags to riches is what the country is all about, why so much surprise when it actually happens to someone?"). Of religion, he writes: "If only religion were an opiate. No known narcotic rots the brain so fast."

Elsewhere, even though he claims that he welcomes ad hominem attacks on himself as a "small moral victory", he does not follow his own advice. Ronald Reagan ("Reagan is doing to the country what he can no longer do to his wife"), the evangelical pastor Jerry Falwell ("If you gave Falwell an enema, he'd be buried in a matchbox") and the US Republican politician Newt Gingrich ("He has a Tyrannosaurus rex skull in his office; he has a Tyrannosaurus rex skull in his skull") all learned this to their cost.

Hitchens may plead, "Nobody human is ever consistent," but it would be remiss not to note that the man who once wrote, "It was the demise of 'totalitarianism' as a useful term, useful in petrifying political opponents . . . that meant the demise of neoconservatism," has since aligned himself with this ideological faction. That the Arab world is now being remade by forces that are neither neoconservative nor Islamist demonstrates why he was wrong to do so.

Nevertheless, Hitchens's support for George W Bush's re-election in 2004 does not preclude several low blows at the former president's expense ("His eyes are so close together, he could use a monocle").

I interviewed Hitchens for the New Statesman last May and his mordant verdict then on David Cameron appears in this collection: "He seems content-free to me. Never had a job, except in PR, and it shows. People ask, 'What do you think of him?' My answer is: he doesn't make me think." A month later, after returning to Washington, DC, Hitchens was diagnosed with stage four cancer of the oesophagus. And, as he notes, "There is no stage five."

Since then, he has written and spoken about his illness with remarkable clarity and eloquence, most notably in a series of essays for Vanity Fair. His observations on the subject are instantly timeless and timelessly instant. "To the dumb question, 'Why me?'" he writes, "the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: 'Why not?'" To a Christian who insisted that God had given him "throat" cancer in order to punish the "one part of his body he used for blasphemy", he replies: "My so-far uncancerous throat . . . is not at all the only organ with which I have blasphemed."

Hitchens was once asked if there was any subject on which he did not have an opinion and he replied: "Yes, and you'll notice because I don't talk about them very much." But in this collection, one finds elegant views on animals and anarchism, judges and Judaism, money and monarchy and Sontag and Socrates. In this age of high specialisation, we should prize such omnivorousness.

At one point, he laments the image and self-image of the American left as rather "too solemn, mirthless, herbivorous, dull, monochrome, righteous and boring". None of these epithets could be applied to him.

George Eaton is a staff writer for the New Statesman

George Eaton is senior online editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Hands up who knows how to fix our schools