(I totally understand if you’ve stopped reading.)
I’m even more ashamed to say that the first time I had ever heard of the guy was…yes, the day he died, and it was only because it was all over CNN. I rememberAC360 replaying snippets of Anderson Cooper’s interview with him, which was recorded some months after he had been diagnosed with esophageal cancer — so at least I can say I’ll never forget the impression he left me from that one interview. He’d already begun to physically wither under the duress of his treatment; he couldn’t have known with absolute certainty that the next 16 months or so were to be his last, but even then the self-described “anti-theist” wouldn’t resign himself to fatalism (or, hypocritically, to the opposite extreme: the false comfort and over-optimism of religion). Even more impressive was his will to endure intellectually, as was his eagerness to take death unapologetically on the chin.
Mortality, a collection of musings which touch upon a variety of subjects (though mostly those one would reasonably expect a dying, suffering realist to dwell on), captures all of the same grace, unapologetic intellectualism, and inspiration — and then some. Throughout his book, your sense of him and all that makes him great is heightened precisely because it’s in writing; he bared his soul in his written words.
You get a sense for how important writing is to him in one of his more painful passages. “I often grandly say,” Hitchens writes, “that writing is not just my living and my livelihood but my very life, and it’s true.” The pain is in the context: he had been injected with something to alleviate the pain in his extremities, the chief byproduct of which was a numbness that instilled within him a fear of losing the ability to write. He remarks, “Without that ability, I feel sure in advance, my ‘will to live’ would be hugely attenuated.”
“I feel my personality and identity dissolving as I contemplate dead hands and the loss of the transmission belts that connect me to writing and thinking.”
He leaves pondering writers plenty to think about and admire. I’ll never forget his simple yet sensible and infinitely optimistic advice: that writing should follow the rules of talking, and that we should “avoid stock expressions and repetitions,” refrain from saying “as a boy, your grandmother used to read to you,’ unless at that stage of her life she really was a boy,” that “if something is worth hearing or listening to, it’s very probably worth reading,” and that you should “find your own voice.”