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Customer Review

on March 15, 2006
In an earlier day [mine] it was Paul Goodman's "Growing Up Absurd." Today, it's Hitchens' "Letters." Hitchens demonstrates he's a worthy successor to Goodman's role as a mentor to young people. Goodman wrote at the height of protests over civil rights, race and gender equality and war in Viet Nam. Hitchens assaults various icons of this generation with skillful prose and deep insight. "Unthinking acceptance" is his chief target. He is always worth reading, even if you are in opposition with his conclusions. This series of "letters" to young people is Hitchens at his best. He seeks to respond to the query asking "how a radical or 'contrarian' life may be lived." His persistent theme is to question whatever "accepted wisdom" is encountered.
He opens with some definitions and explanations for his use of the unusual term "contrarian." Earlier terms, such as "dissenter," "iconoclast" and "freethinker" are generally applied to religious heretics. "Intellectual," coined during the Dreyfus Affair in France, retains a record of scornful judgment and is too limited. Hitchens prefers "contrarian" as helping the independent mind keeping focussed on "how it thinks" instead of "what it thinks." He reminds the young reader that maintaining independent thought is a lonely and essentially thankless task. In fact, he reminds us that if somebody expresses admiration for your insights, you're probably doing something wrong!
In this collection there are no polemics, no identified targets, no vituperation against individuals or institutions. The theme is encouragement of individual thinking and reflection. No particular issues are raised and examined. Instead, patterns of thinking and the actions taken are considered. The reader is enjoined to reflect on which paths to consider and follow, since Hitchens is sympathetic with those confronted by the multiplicity of issues facing them. He further stresses that none of the subjects confronting young people today are likely to be resolved in absolute terms. He is conscious of his own inability to deal in absolutes - 'quietly proud of what little I'd done, as well as ashamed by how little that was." A realistic statement, it's one adding value to the advice on individuality permeating this book.
Reading this collection is, of course, but a starting point. While he abjures demands for a "reading list," the essays are sprinkled with sources for examples of unconstrained thinking. Beginning with Emile Zola, he encourages readers to investigate George Dangerfield, Rilke, E.P. Thompson and Joseph Heller. That's a hefty assignment, but, as Hitchens stresses, achieving justice isn't an easy nor popular path. Hitchens disavows aspirations of becoming either a "leader" or a "role model" for young contrarians. Even so, his autobiographical comments provide clues to what must be done to fulfill the role. And every individual, he stresses, has an individual role - not everyone is expected to reach his level nor anyone else's. The only injunction is to continually self-examine what your beliefs are and how you express them. Only then can you be certain you qualify as a contrarian in pursuit of justic.
The theme of this book was anticipated by F. M. Cornford at the beginning of the last century: "There is only one argument for doing something; the rest are arguments for doing nothing." Derive and argument for doing something . . . It was a valid statement a century ago, and remains important today. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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