October 9, 2011
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.
Mr. Hitchens is gaunt these days, no longer barrel-chested. His voice is softer than it used to be, and for the second time since he began treatment, he has lost most of his hair. Once such an enthusiastic smoker that he would light up in the shower, he gave up cigarettes a couple of years ago. Even more inconceivable to many of his friends, Mr. Hitchens, who used to thrive on whiskey the way a bee thrives on nectar, hasn’t had a drink since July, when a feeding tube was installed in his stomach. “That’s the most depressing aspect,” he said. “The taste is gone. I don’t even want to. It’s incredible what you can get used to.”
But in most other respects Mr. Hitchens is undiminished, preferring to see himself as living with cancer, not dying from it. He still holds forth in dazzlingly clever and erudite paragraphs, pausing only to catch a breath or let a punch line resonate, and though he says his legendary productivity has fallen off a little since his illness, he still writes faster than most people talk. Last week he stayed up until 1 in the morning to finish an article for Vanity Fair, working on a laptop on his bedside table.
Writing seems to come almost as naturally as speech does to Mr. Hitchens, and he consciously associates the two. “If you can talk, you can write,” he said. “You have to be careful to keep your speech as immaculate as possible. That’s what I’m most afraid of. I’m terrified of losing my voice.” He added: “Writing is something I do for a living, all right — it’s my livelihood. But it’s also my life. I couldn’t live without it.”
Mr. Hitchens’s newest book, published last month, is “Arguably,” a paving-stone-sized volume consisting mostly of essays finished since his last big collection, “Love, Poverty and War,” which came out in 2004. The range of subjects is typically Hitchensian. There are essays — miniature pamphlets, almost — on political subjects and especially on the danger posed to the West by Islamic terrorism and totalitarianism, a subject that has preoccupied Mr. Hitchens since 2001. But there are just as many on literary figures; there’s a paean to oral sex, and there are little rants about unruly wine waiters, clichés and the misuse of “fuel” as a verb. The book’s epigraph is from Henry James’s novel “The Ambassadors”: “Live all you can: It’s a mistake not to.” And in an introduction Mr. Hitchens writes: “Some of these articles were written with the full consciousness that they might be my very last. Sobering in one way and exhilarating in another, this practice can obviously never become perfected.”
In his hospital room he suggested that an awareness of mortality was useful for a writer but ideally it should remain latent. “I try not to dwell on it,” he said, “except that once in a while I say, O.K., I’m not going to make that joke, I’m not going to go for that chortle. Or if I have to choose between two subjects, I won’t choose the boring one.”
He added, talking about an essay on Philip Larkin that made it into “Arguably”: “I knew the collection was going to come out even if I did not, and I was very pleased when I finished that one, because of the way it ends: ‘Our almost-instinct almost true:/ What will survive of us is love.’ I remember thinking, if that’s the last piece I write, that will do me.” After a moment he went on: “The influence of Larkin is much greater than I thought. He’s perfect for people who are thinking about death. You’ve got that old-line Calvinist pessimism and modern, acid cynicism — a very good combo. He’s not liking what he sees, and not pretending to.”
His main regret at the moment, Mr. Hitchens said, was that while he was keeping up with his many deadlines — for Slate, The Atlantic and Vanity Fair — he didn’t have the energy to also work on a book. He had recently come up with some new ideas about his hero, George Orwell, for example — among them that Orwell might have had Asperger’s — and he said he ought to include them in a revised edition of his 2002 book, “Why Orwell Matters.” He had also thought of writing a book about dying. “It could be called ‘What to Expect When You’re Expecting,’ ” he said, laughing.
Turning serious, he said, “I’ve had some dark nights of the soul, of course, but giving in to depression would be a sellout, a defeat.” He added: “I don’t know why I got so sick. Maybe it was the smokes, or maybe it’s genes. My father died of the same thing. It’s pointless getting into remorse.”
On balance, he reflected, the past year has been a pretty good one. He won a National Magazine Award, published “Arguably,” debated Tony Blair in front of a huge audience and added two states to the list of those he has visited. “I lack only the Dakotas and Nebraska,” he said, “though I may not get there unless someone comes up with some ethanol-based cancer treatment in Omaha.”
Mr. Hitchens has an extensive support network that includes his wife, Carol Blue, and his great friends James Fenton and Martin Amis. Mr. Amis is known for being cool and acerbic, but as he kissed and embraced Mr. Hitchens last week, visiting on the way to a literary festival in Mexico, his affection for his friend was unmistakable. “Hitch’s buoyancy is amazing,” he said later. “He has this great love of life, which I rather envy, because I think I may be deficient in that respect. It’s an odd thing to say, but he’s almost like a Tibetan monk. It’s as if he’d become religious.” ***
Though he was asked a variety of questions from the audience, none appeared to elicit more interest than the one asked by eight-year-old Mason Crumpacker, who wanted to know what books she should read. In response, Hitchens first asked where her mother was and the girl indicated that she was siting beside her. He then asked to see them once the presentation was over so that he could give her a list.
As the event drew to a close, Mason and her mom, Anne Crumpacker of Dallas, followed him out. Surrounded by attendees wanting a glance of the famed author, Hitchens sat on a table just outside of the ballroom and spent about 15 minutes recommending books to Mason.
"Christopher Hitchens to 8yearold who asked, "What should I read?" "All the old myths and fairy tales." -- Suzie Harmon on Twitter.
Hitchens’ list of books and authors: Dawkins’ Magic of Reality, Greek and Roman myths, particularly those compiled by Robert Graves, anything satirical by Shakespeare, Geoffrey Chaucer, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, PG Wodehouse (“for fun”), David Hume, and Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.