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

Books

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. 

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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.

1280px-Olivehurst,_Yuba_County,_California._Another_view_of_church_on_Second_Avenue._Preacher_was_a_migrant_._._._-_NARA_-_521579

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.
Lightning over a dark horizon - Stephen King's "Revival"

Religion, Music and Drugs in ‘Revival’ by Stephen King

Books

I finished Revival  – and without taking the planned break at page 300 to write a post marking the milestone, whoops. Instead I found myself obsessing over the story and was helpless but to relentlessly tear through the rest of the novel at every available moment. What follows however is not a review, I’m simply not one to be trusted on that front, and so instead I present a discussion of what interests me most about Revival.

spoilers

On Religion

Stephen King is a believer in God. He told Rolling Stone magazine last year, “I choose to believe that God exists, and therefore I can say, ‘God, I can’t do this by myself. Help me not to take a drink today. Help me not to take a drug today.’ And that works fine for me.”

This particular use of belief as a tool for support or strength that King seems to have plays into the novel. Where faith parts with Jamie Morton, drugs and alcohol appear to take over; where faith parts with Charles Jacobs, obsession and amorality. Both are examples of one such supportive crutch being replaced with others. Whilst this may have been the doorway to a novel that battled faith against atheism, I was glad to see King refrain from doing so.

You’re not real!‘ I shouted. ‘You’re not real! It’s all a bunch of tricks! Damn you, Jesus! Damn you, Jesus! Damn you, damn you, damn you, Jesus!

Those words are spoken by our narrator as a young boy marking the end of his belief. I like to believe that King used damn intentionally, a nod to the pervasiveness of adoptive theological language in our everyday tongue, ironically even in the renunciation of faith itself. 

 

On Music and Drugs

I recently spoke to an old friend of Stephen King. He’s a musician from Chicago, who fell into addiction at the same time that King was climbing out of it. Michael McDermott’s music (think Springsteen, Chris Rea, Dylan, etc.) made such an impression on the novelist, in fact, that an essay penned by Stephen now takes pride of place on his website. I mention Michael because I saw him, for better and for worse, in the pages of Revival. Taken in by the rock’n’roll lifestyle, both our narrator and McDermott fell into addiction at a young age and subsequently saw big-time success slip away – and just like Jamie, McDermott is now clean and sober. 

Jamie’s story feels genuine because it echoes much of what Michael has told me in our conversations: the helplessness of addiction, the hypnosis of playing rock’n’roll live, and the longevity of love through it all. Did King draw from his own experiences of addiction and those of his friends then? It seems likely.

“Nobody lives one day at a time like a drug addict. You don’t think yesterday or tomorrow. You just think now, where is it? I was high much of the eighties, and I’m not a very reflective person, so it never crossed my mind that it was an existential thing, or that it was wasteful or anything else. It was just what I was doing that day.”

– Stephen King, Guardian interview, 2000

“I went to jail for it (I was facing 3 to 6 years in prison), that didn’t stop me. Ruined relationships, that didn’t stop me. Became a car thief, that didn’t stop me. Overdosed, that didn’t stop me. […] I would be asked to speak at churches and between services I would be outside in my car, drinking whiskey and snorting cocaine.”

– Michael McDermott, in a forthcoming interview on my Huffington Post UK blog.

“The future was looking brighter. I would score at the fair, find a place to crash – maybe at a local homeless shelter, maybe outside – and tomorrow I’d ride the big gray dog to Shytown. There was a musicians’ exchange there, as there is in most big cities, with players sitting around, telling jokes, swapping gossip, and looking for gigs. For some this wasn’t easy (accordion players, for example), but bands were always looking for competent rhythm guitar players, and I was a smidge more than that. By 1992 I could even play a little lead, if called upon to do so. And if I wasn’t too wrecked.The important thing was to get to Chicago and get a gig before Kelly Van Dorn put out the word that I was unreliable, and the pisshead just might.”

– Jamie Morton, Chapter 5, Revival

 

 

100 Pages in… Revival, by Stephen King [No Spoilers]

Books

kinghciar1One hundred pages in and I’m reminded of something: Stephen King is effortlessly absorbing. And he is a master craftsman in world-building. So, put those together and you find yourself often in Derry, Castle Rock, Dallas, or Harlow, without so much of a scuff of your feet as you hit the dusty road. After a slightly drab, though ultimately cathartic, stumble through Mr Mercedes, Revival has me hooked again, feeling the heat and smelling the electrified air.

Both in time and space, Revival‘s narrative takes over the steering wheel. In some novels, I find myself making a concerted effort to drive the narrative on with my attention in tact, identifying reasons to be intrigued and indulging in intricacies of language where plot offers only nuances of change. Now, that’s no negative aspect, as far as I’m concerned, because sometimes a story requires less adrenaline, less races of the heart, and more inspection of the finer details – it can often to be the clue to the whole thing being really rather beautiful – but it’s nice to get inside, feel the tug and shove of relentless shifts of time and place, and simply enjoy the ride, however bumpy it may be.

I was bound to love this story, as it turns out. Science, religion, music, sex, drugs and violence – it’s a list to entice most. And although I know there were some mediocre reviews for this book, I sit happily in the knowledge that the experience is subjective to the reader. I relate to the above topics, especially religion and drugs and music, so I’m completely invested in knowing how everything turns out.

My Uh-Oh moment so far? When King’s narrative monkey jumped on the shoulder’s of relative strangers. When that happens, you know something terrible, something utterly awful is going to happen. Well, it did.

And I loved it.