And Yet... by Christopher Hitchens — A Book Review
Collecting the work of columnists and serialized writers can be a tricky undertaking, forcing an editor to determine an ideal audience. They can target those unfamiliar with the author, who largely want to read the most entertaining, accessible, or controversial pieces from the corpus. Then, there are the long-time fans, who have already read through most of a writers portfolio and want either an omnibus or greatest hits to place on their bookshelf. and yet... is a collection struggles to serve either of these well. Perhaps, only a book for the die-hard loyalists who will purchase anything with Hitchens' name.
Much like the recent controversy surrounding Go Set a Watchman, and yet... seems like a book that Christopher Hitchens, if he had any say in the matter, would have chosen not to publish. The book reads and feels like a marketing gimmick, published in an election year with contents that are far too relevant. Someone less cynical may view this as a coincidence or the result of proper editing, with the publishing house hoping to inspire new audiences to pick up the book. However, there is far too much fluff and too few of Hitchens' standards for such an intention.
Instead, readers are bombarded with essays on:
- Republican electoral fraud — "Ohio's Odd Numbers"
- Republican electoral districts' demographics — "My Red State Odyssey"
- The Democratic Establishment and War on Terror — "Blood for No Oil"
- Hillary Clinton — "The Tall Tale of Tuzla"
- Hillary Clinton — "The Case Against Hillary Clinton"
- Arthur Schlesinger (and his defense of Bill Clinton) — "The Courtier"
- Voting Obama (a criticism of George W. Bush and the Clintons) — "No Regrets"
- A later reflection on said vote — "Barack Obama: Cool Cat"
- A criticism of the Tea Party and electoral populism — "The Politicians We Deserve"
- A warning of negotiation with Iran — "Engaging with Iran is like having sex with someone who hates you."
- And a number of further essays that are tangentially, though not crassly, salient political issues right now.
While Hitchens definitely despised the Clintons (No One Left to Lie To destroys any doubt), nearly a tenth of the pages is this book mention them—an absurd and odd quantity.
Further oddities of this collection abound. The inclusion of three separate holiday essays—two Christmas, one Thanksgiving—in a book published at the end of the holiday season makes little sense. This questionable choice is compounded by their odd separation: a Christmas and Thanksgiving essay in the first third of the book, and another Christmas 34 essays later. This order implies that they were intended for some thematic effect instead of just filler, though I have no idea what that theme is. Further, I have no idea what purpose of inclusion they hold.
Another minor annoyance is the epigraph:
One should strive to combine the maximum of impatience with the maximum of skepticism, the maximum of hatred of injustice and irrationality with the maximum of ironic self-criticism. This would mean really deciding to learn from history rather than invoking or sloganizing it.
— Christopher Hitchens, Letters to a Young Contrarian
While there is nothing inherently wrong with the quote or sentiment, it is wildly out of place. In no way does it match the tenor of and yet..., which contains no instructional or epistolary essays like Letters to a Young Contrarian. Any wisdom-seeking young contrarian should simply pick up Letters or even Hitch-22 for such advice. Worst of all, the epigraph is something the good ole Hitch would never have allowed published. At least, I hope. He always seemed to have the good sense and taste to defer to older wisdom and art by excerpting great poems or speeches, not his own work.
While and yet... does have these faults and a few others, with some weak or dysphoric inclusions, it does contain some very well-written essays that showcase Hitchens as insightful and entertaining. There should be no qualms that the essays collected are worth reading, even if the collection is not worth purchasing. I have never laughed so vociferously while reading as I did with the "Limits of Self Improvement Pts. I-III". Hitchens' description of sunga, the male equivalent of Brazilian waxing, is a far more uncomfortable and hilarious pain than Steve Carell in The 40-Year Old Virgin. His writings on Che Guevara and George Orwell make strong openers, and the collection does have a generally insightful discussion of political figures. Though, over half of the collection is composed of book reviews and literary criticism. Most of which are interesting for those who have already read the works reviewed or are searching to expand their reading list based on the criterion of non-current publications. Though, the reviews of Salman Rushdie and Joan Didion are particularly engaging. Articles on Hezbollah, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and other discussion of Islam and the Middle East are similarly out-of-date, but provide solid foundational knowledge on the subjects and those involved.
Undoubtedly, the most moving theme of this book is patriotism. Hitchens interrogates the nature of patriotism, explaining both how and why he transferred allegiance from his native Britain to the United States. Even his essays on imperialism, elections, and militarism carry a leitmotif of patriotism, though it is never strong enough to be considered the focus of this collection. "On Becoming American" and "What Is Patriotism?" especially deserve to be read. However, I believe they would be much more effective if presented as a small thematic collection with select essays previously-published—much like Mortality.
If you are a reader unfamiliar with Christopher Hitchens, this could be an accessible introduction: a survey of various genres, forms, and themes. However, keep in mind that his most famous or acclaimed essays are collected in Arguably or Love, Poverty, and War. If you are a casual or long-time reader of Hitchens, this collection probably has little to offer unless you are dying to reread or discover several of its contents. If you are an obsessive like me, wanting to have all of his work on your shelf, then you probably own it already. All things considered, and yet... is not a bad collection, just a superfluous one.
Photo Credit: Andrew Rusk via Flickr