Christopher Hitchens Mortality Review: An Atheist Prepares for Death


This book is new territory for me in two ways. When I read Mortality, the last and unfortunately unfinished book by the late, great Christopher Hitchens, not only am I reading words written on a deathbed, but I — a book reviewer — am pretty ashamed to say that it’s also the first and, so far, only book of his that I’ve ever read. I believe in honesty, and that it would be important to admit that for the sake of context.

(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.”

Written By: Emen William Garcia
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  1. I contracted HIV in 1985 but it was not diagnosed until 1987. Back then it meant 1 to 2 years more of life. For me nothing was all that much different, other than I had a looming and explicit deadline to accomplish what I wanted to get done in my life.  People imagine it is much worse than it actually is, that somehow everything has to stop until the problem is “solved”. They imagine sick people are “brave”, when actually they are just bored with the issue.  Lack of energy, nausea and pain are a problem, but not so much dying.

    Christians make themselves miserable with terror or what will happen to them after they die.  I had no such fears. I had gone under anesthesia on several occasions, and that seemed to me a pretty good approximation of dying, nothing to fear.

    I think Christopher looked on the problem much as I did.  How can I possibly get done all I want to in the remaining time?  There is no time to waste being maudlin about it.

    A trap people can fall into is self-recrimination for everything they did that lead to an early death. You realise that if you went back in time, you would lose your hindsight, and would make the same mistakes. I think Christopher largely avoided that too.

  2. Hitch was ironic and witty right up to the end. On the religious who prayed for him, he said it would be strangely irritating if he made a full recovery, as this would give prayer some merit. : ) 

  3. Similarly, I believe he also said that he might undergo a deathbed conversion, if only for the reason that it was better for one of the faithful to pass away than than an atheist.

  4. To a thorough extent,i feel proud and lucky to have coexisted with such an intellectual warrior.
    Hitch is simply a LEGEND.

  5. It was sad to read the fragmentary jottings at the end of the book, but in a way I feel lucky to have had even just a little glimpse of Hitch’s writing in its early form.

  6. This was very tough to read because the images that he painted of what he was going through were so clear and terrible in my mind. I am glad to have read it. Hitch kept writing to the end, because that is what his life was about. He can no longer write, but his writings live on. After finishing this book, I find I can’t justifying sitting around not writing, what I still can write.

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