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review: non-fiction

British writer Christopher Hitchens in Toronto, Nov. 25, 2010.Kevin Van Paassen

A friend tells a story about Christopher Hitchens. He attended a lecture by the British essayist on an American university campus. As is his custom, Hitchens followed up a long speech by answering every question from the audience, and signing every book.

My friend spotted Hitchens in the quadrangle afterward, arguing with two students. The subject, he gathered, was Marxism and the tone was strident. Assuming the exchange wouldn't last long, he swung around 20 minutes later to discover the discussion ongoing, with Hitchens scoring point after point. He left again, but with no doubt about who would end up declaring no mas in this bout.

Arguably is Hitchens's fifth essay collection, and his 20th (or so) book. It is also, he notes, his first since a doctor informed him in summer, 2010, that "I might have as little as another year to live." That pronouncement came shortly after the then 61-year-old published his memoir, Hitch-22. His experience of esophageal cancer, rendered in magazine pieces in the autumn, inadvertently trumped the memoir's many disclosures.

For this reason, perhaps, the mention of illness in the introduction, and then a thank you to his family in the acknowledgments for helping him find the "fortitude and patience" to get through the treatments, are all the attention the cancer is paid. These 750 pages of bright, witty, nearly always charged reportage and argument are business as usual for one of the most lucid and humane voices of our age.

The collection maps Hitchens's various engagements with the now officially ended 9/11 decade. All but a handful of the more than 100 articles were written in the aftermath of the destruction of the Twin Towers, and few escape some mention, direct or otherwise, of what Hitchens believes to be the essential conflict of the new century – between moderation and extremism, along with the corollary need to assert "pluralism as a virtue" and variety as a mark of civilization.

Though self-described as belonging on the "anti-totalitarian side" of the left, Hitchens is presumed by many critics to have lately crossed over to the right, because of his support for the Iraq war and his strident critiques of radical Islam. The emergence of his complex stance is charted in Arguably, mostly through his travels to Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. In these places, he can be found arguing and persuading more than doing much actual travel writing. But that is fine: His excursions are purposeful and well told.

America is his other declared preoccupation. Long a resident of the nation's capital, Hitchens is a staunch defender of the Republic, especially with so much "easy talk about the 'decline' of my adopted country." The first section, All American, sets the tone with its ardent forays, usually born of a book under review, into everything from the private Thomas Jefferson to the JFK spin industry.

Hitchens even decides that two of his slighter efforts from the decade – a modest proposal about why men are funnier than women, and a paean to fellatio – contribute to a "conversation without limits or proscriptions," itself a sign of a society that "knows to keep the solemn and the pious at bay." Larry Flynt would certainly agree, especially about liberties and oral sex; Taliban elders, one suspects, would find neither piece funny at all.

It is beyond doubt that Hitchens considers provocation his daily bread and wine. Those who come to Arguably knowing only his bestselling God is Not Great How Religion Poisons Everythingmay be disappointed that so few of the essays find occasion, explicitly at least, to hunt this favourite target. The lengthy The New Commandments, which may have had its origins in a rousing Hitchens lecture at the Royal Ontario Museum, takes a few shots.

The disappointed, of course, may console themselves as well with earlier books, including The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice. Its title alone is ready to rumble. That, or they can simply marvel at the range and depth of Hitchens's interests, not to mention the quality of his mind and pen.

But what may be most astonishing about Arguably is how bare it lays the foundation for Hitchens's enduring relevance as an essayist and commentator. Simply, it all comes down to reading and rereading, arguing with and for, books. A full half of the pieces concern great writers, while the other half routinely, happily, cite the author's literary touchstones, with George Orwell and Thomas Paine among the most notable.

A partial list of authors treated to deeply felt essays will help illustrate a parallel astonishment. Clearly, engaging with Twain, Bellow, Nabokov, Edmund Burke, Samuel Johnson, Flaubert, Dickens, Ezra Pound, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Philip Larkin and J. G. Ballard has both brought Hitchens joy and made him a better writer. Literature, he is demonstrating, is food and fuel for his thinking.

To see anyone in 2011 so engaged with the canon, with a literary and intellectual tradition that some digital days feels as recessed as paintings in French caves, is cheering. To note that Hitchens continues to publish these pieces in large-circulation, often high-gloss magazines such as Vanity Fair and The Atlantic, is to appreciate a little more why he remains a believer in America, and American letters.

Finally, it isn't quite true that Arguably maintains a vow of silence about cancer. Hitchens does concede that "some of these articles were written with the full consciousness that they might be my very last." Astride the grave is a stark vantage point for viewing what, as he puts it, "makes life worth living." A line from Henry James both informs an essay in the collection and serves as its epigraph: "Live all you can: It's a mistake not to." Here are more than 700 pages of a life lived fully through meaningful work. May his next essay or book, public lecture or campus argument be just as boisterous and spirited.

The quotable Hitch

Six Hitchens quotes, from among a great many possibilities:

On the JFK industry

This, 40 years after Kennedy's death: "This is not to say that hair and nails do not continue to sprout from the corpse."

On John Updike's novel Terrorist

Of this post- 9/11 novel about a terrorist: "Fair-mindedness here threatens to decline into something completely passive, neutral and inert."

On Gore Vidal

Speaking of Vidal's often cruel verbal quips: "In an interview, he told me that his life's work was « making sentences. It would have been more acute to say that he made a career out of pronouncing them."

On Pakistan

If Pakistan, a country Hitchens does not admire, was a man, he would be: "... completely humourless, paranoid, insecure, eager to take offense, and suffering from self-righteousness, self-pity, and self-hatred."

On Edward Said

On the lesser prose of the late Arab-American academic: "This passage is rescued from sheer vulgarity only by its incoherence."

On gender differences and humour

"Men will laugh at almost anything, often because it is – or they are – extremely stupid. Women aren't like that."

Contributing reviewer Charles Foran's most recent books are Maurice Richard and Mordecai: The Life and Times, which won the Taylor Prize.