In a sense, Hitchens’ most self-defining book, or his key personal positioning statement (though all his books are strong on personal positioning) is neither his God book nor his memoir, but his short Letters To A Young Contrarian.
The conceit of the book is that he is the teacher and that an admiring and precocious student has asked for his advice – a setup that only the young and admiring might find credible (“You rather tend to flatter and embarrass me, when you inquire my advice as to how a radical or ‘contrarian’ life may be lived”). The book is modelled on Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet, but, hopelessly cloying, feels more like Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet.
The book’s message is… well, nothing more than that young people should challenge the conventional wisdom and question authority. It is also defensive and self-aggrandising as it lays out the theoretical rationale for being Christopher Hitchens. (A Hitchens aside which might have been directed at Hitchens himself: “If you have ever argued with a religious devotee… you will have noticed that his self-esteem and pride are involved in the dispute and that you are asking him to give up some- thing more than a point in argument.”)
And in a sense it ends up making the case against him. Hitchens was really not a contrarian – at least not a contrarian in the sense of someone with eccentric, lonely opinions, often held for no other reason than that no one else holds them – but rather doctrinal and partisan. What’s more, he mostly gave offence where no offence would really be taken – or where he could be guaranteed a phalanx of defenders. Mother Teresa was one of his theoretically courageous targets – except who cares about Mother Teresa?
His God book followed Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. Atheism was already a bestselling view. The God book is also a particular sleight of hand. It makes a persuasive case against a deserving target, so you might forget that virtually the entirety of the Hitchens-reading audience is comprised of nonbelievers – nonbelievers who have not even had to have a crisis of faith.