To me, the autobiography of Hitch was a true literary journey. I consumed it in the form of an audio-book during the summer. For 17.5 hours, Hitch and I were resting at the sunny terrace in my home town in Poland and going around the lush woods and lakes that surround the area. It was the real Hitch’s voice I’ve heard.
At the end of the memoir, Hitch shares his thoughts on audio-books. He says you should cherish them and make time for them just as for a paper book. You have to pay attention – it’s a serious business. But as I walked through the wide forest paths, my mind wandered, only to come back to the life story of one of my favorite writers.
I’ve learned that a part of his family came from a small town in western Poland, no more than 30 km away from mine. He traveled to the occupied country to bring news, jeans, and records to the oppressed resistant youth of the 70’. I always like to think that among Poles, he finally met someone who could out-drink him.
I didn’t take notes while listening. I decided to immerse myself in the story and listen to it as an old friend would – ensconced in an armchair with a glass of fine Scotch in my hand. What I’ve learned I wrote down later, in the afterglow of intellectual intercourse. I thought I’d share it with you.
Best Ideas & Quotes from Hitch 22
1. Live is valuable and worth living if you have something to live for
Not many people have this internal drive to live fully. Hitch had it. Ever hungry for ideas, literary beauty, and argument, he took to heart a piece of advice from Ambassadors (which appears at one of the first pages of Arguably, his collection of essays):
“Live all you can, it’s a mistake not to”.
2. You can play a role in the history
You can actually be a force for good in the history of your period. You may have a positive influence on world affairs. You are not a pawn.
Hitch fought for Cyprus, Kurdistan, and Iran. He demolished African priests who treated contraception as a sin. He advanced the understanding of history, literature and science around the globe. He traveled to the “Axis of Evil” and showed the true face of totalitarianism. None of these events singularly contributed to a major change in the world but it’s the butterfly effect that matters.
3. It’s worth to form great connections and relationships with people – but to get to know them you have to become a quality person yourself
Someone wisely said that to attract high-quality people in your life, first, you have to become attractive. Hitch certainly was an attractive person. He was naturally witty but he also worked hard on his talents. This enabled him to rub shoulders with luminaries such as Gore Vidal, Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, and many others.
4. History is so multifaceted that you have to dig deep to uncover the truth
There are various attempts to change history or to make it politically correct. The Turkish government still lies about the Armenian Genocide. But you’ll also hardly hear much about the Churchill-approved Bombing of Dresden that took toll of 600.000 lives during the final year of WW II. Most people think that Mother Theresa was a saint but in fact, she wasn’t. That’s what I learned from Hitch – never be satisfied with simple answers.
5. It’s alright to drink and have a good time as long as you can do your duty
Hitch was an incessant drinker but there was some strange discipline to this habit. He actually used it to his advantage. By drinking, he became even more eloquent and persuasive. And coffee and cigs enabled him to write long after others went to bed.
Here are a couple of words of advice on drinking from Hitch 22:
Don’t drink on an empty stomach: the main point of the refreshment is the enhancement of food. Don’t drink if you have the blues: it’s a junk cure. Drink when you are in a good mood. Cheap booze is a false economy. It’s not true that you shouldn’t drink alone: these can be the happiest glasses you ever drain.
6. There are causes worth fighting for, and values to be defended
Philosophers may argue about it, but there’s something like universal values, meaning, values that we recognize as beneficial to human flourishing. That includes freedom of speech, gender equality, and freedom of taking your own choices as an independent person.
Many people around the world disagree with that. We have to fight to minimize their appeal and influence. Hitch certainly did.
7. You should read your prose out loud to see how it flows
This is common-sense writing advice that’s often overlooked because it requires an additional disciplined step. But it’s essential for catching all the stylistic mistakes and revealing areas for improvement. Hitch always said you should write as you speak (he was definitely influenced by Orwell in that regard). By reading your work before sending it to the editor, you get closer to good prose.
8. If you have a good reputation and influence, you can meet some of your heroes
Many people dream about meeting their favorite writers, artists, filmmakers, intellectuals, and political and business leaders. If you present value, if you are a person of quality, even the seemingly inaccessible people will grant you an audience.
9. You should read voraciously, be active in social spheres and voice your opinion
Hitch lived with a love for the argument. He engaged in long conversations and was always bold while expressing his opinions. This made him a lot of enemies but that’s precisely what he wanted. In his apartment in Washington DC, you could see mountains of books that gave him fuel to obliterate his intellectual foes.
His reading was wide and in his memoir he says:
“Your ideal authors ought to pull you from the foundering of your previous existence, not smilingly guide you into a friendly and peaceable harbor.”
10. Preparation and being in the know gives you the confidence to influence the world
Although always on stage, with other people, teaching, in conversation, or on the road, Hitch also spent lots of his time in his personal library. That’s one of the reasons why he was able to write marvelous essays almost without an effort (but not without some good vintage to go with it).
11. Even the minor work you do can change somebody else’s life in a positive way
It all matters – every moment matters. You don’t have to change the world, but you have to change the lives of others for the better. Hitchens was a Bohemian from an early age but with time, he took up teaching and wrote Letters to a Young Contrarian, which I highly recommend. Serve others. It matters.
12. There are still so many books to be read
Most people become complacent about their reading just after finishing college. But that’s actually when the real fun begins. To become really knowledgeable you need years and years of study. Hitch certainly was an expert in many subjects – literature, history, politics, religion, mythology, travel, psychology and sociology.
13. It’s important to know the history of your country, of the world and of your family
Hitch was born in England but later on, he discovered his Jewish roots on his mother’s side who committed suicide in Athens when he was still a lad.
14. Travel enables you to better appreciate the country that you live in. You can actually be a witness of historical moments if you travel for that purpose
Hitch was never a casual traveler. He roamed the world to witness some of the great historical moments and fascinating places. He came back to Cyprus frequently and fought for its independence. He went to Isfahan to converse with a descendant of the Prophet and learn more about Iran’s nuclear program. He went to North Korea to witness 1984 in action. He went to Poland and Czechoslovakia under the communist regime.
15. It’s important to defend your friends and your ideas
There are people with wrong agendas in this world. When Salman Rushdie wrote The Satanic Verses, he fell under the morbid fatwa of the Ayatollah. Rushdie went into hiding but Hitchens defended his friend and freedom of speech for many years. Hitch called himself a First Amendment Absolutist and his thoughts on the subject are eloquently described in his essay Assassins of The Mind.
16. There is something dramatic about the way that history plays out. Sometimes it takes decades but ultimately you may be able to affect the lives of millions
Before reading Hitch 22, my notion of history was that of impetuous and almost instantaneous events – like 9/11. But there’s another type of history: the one that evolves over decades and finally reaches culmination. It was the case with the Berlin Wall, the fall of the USSR, the Human Rights Movement, the Emancipation of Women, the Gay Movement, and many other historical struggles that took years to come to a successful conclusion. If you fight for a cause, stay patient, maybe it will take your whole lifetime to see it come through.
17. Literature is one of the things worth living for
Hitch was an anti-theist and rightly argued that religion (especially in its organized form) is bullshit. But he never lost the sense of awe towards nature and the arts. The appreciation of the language is important. Great novels can get you through the toughest times. Great poetry can lift the spirit. Great expository works can flood your mind with new possibilities.
18. It takes years to master your craft as a writer, and you always have to be humble and appreciate the ones that came before you
Hitchens said he always tried not to have heroes. All humans are flawed in some way and even Hemingway, revered for generations was found out to be collaborating with the communist regime. But we can still draw inspiration from our favorite writers. Usually, it takes years of struggle before your work meets any standard of quality.
Hitch put in the work:
“Your favorite occupation? Travel in contested territory. Hard-working writing and reading when safely home, in the knowledge that an amusing friend is later coming to dinner.”
19. There might be a connection between music and fiction writing (the X factor)
Does musicality really enable one to write beautiful novels and poetry? This might be a tenable hypothesis.
20. Foreign language is a door to a whole new world
Being a cosmopolitan gentleman, you would expect Hitch to speak one other language. Well, he didn’t but I’m sure he would advise you to learn at least French or Spanish.
Here’s an excerpt from his Telegraph interview:
Are there any other insecurities we should know about? ‘Money. Never had enough growing up. And I’m full of self-loathing that I don’t speak another language well. And I would have liked to have run for a seat in Parliament. Think less of myself for not doing it.’
21. Show up! Play a part in some great events that are always going on in a civilized city
Showing up for events, talks, arguments, debates, parties, and interviews were the daily bread of Hitch. This human factor definitely made his life more interesting and helped to develop his personal style. I’ll have to remember that next time when practicing my introverted ways.
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