Letters to a Young Contrarian, by Christopher Hitchens: Rebellion and a Reading List


You should rebel with Hitchens. Few books on a shelf carry with them by mere sight of their spine such heavyweight provocation. In fact, you should learn with Hitchens, and delight in language and in the love of books with Hitchens, too. 


Banned Books and the Spiritual Experience

My childhood was governed in many ways by the conservative religion in which I was brought up. No ungodly entertainment was acceptable in the view of the church; anything with demonic elements or characters in them, like ghosts, spirits, demons and devils, these were all gravely frowned upon. There were to be no themes that contrasted or disagreed with doctrine either, so anything that promoted ideas of evolution, positive views of homosexuality or feminism, or magic. That meant books too. These books, personally influenced and inspired by Satan, like Harry Potter or anything written by Terry Pratchett, if seen to be in the possession of a church member, would cause more than just whisperings in the congregation.

In my later teenage years, after the strength of my faith began to wane, I decided to start tracking down those forbidden texts that promised so much outrage from my congregation and my family. 

I found the books, I kept them hidden, and in small moments, I began to read them. After straying into the pages of other well known contrarians and academic rebels, I was finally to find my place in those of Christopher Hitchens. My point though, before I get ahead of myself, is not to get hung up on exactly the words he used (that comes later), it’s more the religiousness of the feeling those words gave me.


Not this church, it’s just a nice moody photo.

If you have never left a place of worship after a captivating service or finished a long, heartfelt prayer, then perhaps there is an experience you have not yet had – the spiritual, religious experience is seemingly like no other. It is, in my opinion, not wholly a positive experience though, it’s hypnotic and it’s overwhelming, but it might be nonetheless somewhat unique. You look out at your surroundings, the world may as well have changed completely but imperceptibly, like ground beneath every footstep and brick admitting guilt to holding up an elaborate illusion. You are seeing things differently, for what they really are. Every car, building, street, face, movement and moment, they all exist only as symbolic confirmation of the truth embodied in your strengthening faith. 

It is my opinion that this is a state of mind to wary of – and if any book makes you feel like this then you should read another immediately afterwards that entirely disagrees with the first. Not because you’re wrong to feel enlightened, or spiritual, but because there’s a good chance that such a powerful feeling, like any other addictive drug, will make you want more with no care for whether or not it is good for you, never mind whether or not it is true. It’s one reason why some people become religious extremists, why others buy into fascist or racist doctrines, and it’s probably also why some people think John Green writes authentically. 

The ironic religiousness, or spirituality, of reading Hitchens’ god Is Not Great has never left me – it was in the pages of this book, by the way, that I found my place. I have since read around him and against him, challenged his opinions and formed my own – but he has always remained irrepressibly brilliant. And although his famous anti-religion polemic is a superb read for anyone regardless of belief or non-belief, I can’t help but wish I had found Letters to a Young Contrarian sooner, back when I was looking for that perfect way to rebel, to find myself.

A Reading List

Hitchens has always been a prolific recommender of great writers and books, and this volume of his squeezes in a fair few more invaluable additions to any well-round reading list.

J’accuse …! – Émile Zola

Emile Zola could be the pattern for any serious and humanistic radical, because he not only asserted the inalienable rights of the individual, but generalised his assault to encompass the vile role played by clericalism, by racial hatred, by militarism and by the fetishisation of “the nation” and the state. His caustic and brilliant epistolary campaign of 1897 and 1898 may be read as a curtain-raiser for most of the great contests that roiled the coming twentieth century.”

The Strange Death of Liberal England – George Dangerfield

Hitchens only mentions this “magnificent book” in passing, a note within a discussion and critique of the work of Rainer Maria Rilke. However, the book was often on the lips of some well-read acquaintances when I was at university, and so I’m inclined to see this as a strong endorsement.

Dr Israel Shahak

“I have a dear friend in Jerusalem […] His name is Dr Israel Shahak; for many years he did exemplary service s chairman of the Israeli League for Human and Civil Rights. Nothing in his life, as a Jewish youth in pre-1940 Poland and subsequent survivor of indescribable privations and losses, might be expected to have conditioned him to welcome the disruptive. Yet on some occasions when I have asked him for his impression of events, he has calmly and deliberately replied: “There are some encouraging signs of polarisation.” Nothing flippant inheres in this remark; a long and risky life has persuaded him that only an open conflict of ideas and principles can produce any clarity.”

A Dance to the Music of Time – Anthony Powell

“Oriental religions, with their emphasis on Nirvana and fatalism, are repackaged for Westerners as therapy, and platitudes or tautologies masquerade as wisdom. […] Anthony Powell […] captures the foolishness of such mantras very well in his depiction of the followers of the sinister Dr. Trelawney. Adepts of his cult recognise each other by the greeting: “The essence of the all is the godhead of the true” and by the response “The visions heals the blindness of sight.””

Zen at War – Brian Victoria

“[…] which, written as it is by a Buddhist priest, exposes the dire role played by Zen obedience and discipline in the formation of pre-war Japanese imperialism.” 

An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding – David Hume

Although he never outright recommends this in the book, he has often quoted from it and from what Hume I have read, it is very readable and enjoyable. For one of the occasions on which Hitch discussed Hume, here is an entertaining example.

From Chapter, or Letter, XIII onwards, Hitchens saturates the reader with recommendations and quotes and thinkers and writers that everyone should read, and so I will stop here and simply implore you to buy this superb collection of letters. The book is, I am being reminded as I flick through, indispensable, and worth whatever it costs you. It is here, here or here.

I leave you with Dulce Et Decorum Est, by Wilfred Owen.