Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Hitchens’

We, the readers.

In Books, Creativity, Reading, Writing on January 7, 2013 at 6:00 am

A lot of us at the community of …the house… are readers. Consider, for instance, Susan, a faithful and communicative fellow “house” member. She posted a comment (two actually) after my reading list 2012 post sharing her list for 2012. It’s very impressive, and from her brief and concise notes you can tell she is a close reader. Then there is Pete Denton. Pete is a …house… reader who keeps pace with his own blog, Pete Denton. Pete caught my reading list a couple of years ago (2011 here, and 2010 here–you get the idea.) and this year challenged himself to reading a book in every genre. He called it The Eclectic Reading Challenge. His list for 2012 is here. I applaud his discipline.

My reading isn’t so organized as Pete’s. I’m not good at forcing myself to read a book. I used to be good at it. My shelves are full of books I read because I believed a well-read individual should read that book, or this one, or perhaps the one this one refers to, and so on. I still believe that, and I’m glad I plowed through those books. But, as a more mature reader, most of my reading follows the notion that it is best to read the right book at the right time. That is, read the book that finds you, not necessarily the other way around.

Many years ago while browsing a bookstore in London I picked up Christopher Hitchen‘s Letters to a Young Contrarian. I started it and despite its brevity and marvelous writing, I set it aside. l8agyardok205260521I usually know within fifty pages if the book is going to work for me. Last week, maybe ten years after putting it back on the shelf, I plowed through it in two days. I can’t explain where I am as a reader this year verses ten years past, but the book “worked” for me this time.

Over at The New Psalmanazar, another blog I follow, “bibliophile and scribbler [writing] under the alias Ian Wolcott,” claims to have read over seventy books last year. From following his blog, I do not doubt it. He says “If I read a little less this year I might have time to think a little more.” Obviously a lot of books found Ian last year. Let’s hope he can get to more thinking this year, if that’s what he wishes.

File:ReadinglikeawriterFrancine Prose, in her wonderful book, Reading like a Writer, writes that:

“The more we read, the faster we can perform that magic trick of seeing how the letters have been  combined into words that have meaning. The more we read, the more we comprehend, the more likely we are to discover new ways to read, each one tailored to the reason why we are reading a particular book.”

If for no other reason, you must pick up Prose’s book to see her reading list of “Books to Read Immediately” (page 269).

So that settles it. We will read in 2013 and at the end of the year we get together and share notes. Right now, the next book is Why Does The World Exist? an Existential Dectecitive Story by Jim Holt. I think it is interesting that The New York Review of Books titles their essay about this book, What Can You Really Know?Untitled-5

And if you are not a reader? Change that right now. There is nothing you do, lose weight, be a better spouse, drive a hybrid, stop drinking, start drinking, that will be more important and significant. What to read? There are plenty of lists floating around. I’ve given you a couple. Prose’s list is a great one if fiction is your thing. Drop me a note and I’ll do what I can to steer you in the right direction. But most importantly, get a book on your lap. It makes your brain better and that makes existence better in a fashion faster, and more satisfyingly, than another other method.

By the way, side note, the cover to Why Does the World Exist, sports a most excellent photo by Magnum photographer, Dennis Stock. We love those Magnum folks.

Thanks for reading,


“Oh, the vision thing.”

In Creativity, Curiosity, Life, The Examined Life on January 3, 2013 at 6:00 am
Report on the annual slate cleaning.

Report on the annual slate cleaning.

I used to joke that my only New Year’s resolution was to not make New Year’s resolutions. It’s a tired little ditty now and I don’t bother with it. (I’m sure my old logic professor would smile then discourse on the inherent irony in all things tautological.) No resolutions for this hard-bitten curmudgeon. But that does not stop me from exercising my annual habit of purging my space of annoying and distracting artifacts of the previous twelve month’s existence. I like the slate clean. Indeed, I should clean it every day but repeatedly fail to muster the necessary discipline for that. There is probably a correlation to the amount of Maker’s consumed at day’s end and the lack of late post meridiem discipline, alas the occasional surrender of the cerebral cortex to dissipation–but that is altogether another conversation.

Yesterday I wiped the white board clean. Almost.

I installed it a couple of years ago after a young friend, a documentary film maker, convinced me of the benefits of “brain-storming.” I confess that I never fully grasped this brain-storming business. My natural inclination is to seek cover during a storm and my experience with the board proved no different. Who wants a storm, really? Give me a nice sunrise. In other words, the board didn’t get much use after the initial enthusiasm wore off.

So, as I said, I wiped it clean yesterday.

–But for one scribbling. Here is what I kept:

  • Stay true to your vision.
  • Nurture your talent.
  • Do what you love.
  • Wake Up!

I don’t know where I stumbled across these four–for lack of a better word–rules. But they are important enough to keep them on the board. (For perhaps another year?)

I think I like them because they, upon reflection, are surprisingly oblique, and I am naturally drawn to things that are difficult, a weird and annoying personal quirk I figured out in my youth. Though pithy and resounding of feel-good truth, these are not easy admonitions. Here’s the thing:

“Always look to the language,” said Christopher Hitchens (appropriately penned in his wonderful little book, a rif on Rilke, Letters to a Young Contrarian (2001)). The language that jumps out at me: vision, talent, love–and of course Wake up!–these are words that challenge. (“The limits of my language means the limits of my world,” observed Ludwig Wittgenstein.)

Consider: What is my vision? How do I best exercise my talent, assuming I’ve figured out what that is? What do I love? And for god’s sake, how does one wake up? To honestly wrestle with these notions is no small matter. Sure, there are easy and pat answers, but the easy path most frequently lacks insight. (Case in point: a former US president quipping, “Oh, the vision thing.”) I’d rather be dismissive then settle–but I can’t dismiss this stuff. I can’t because even at 57 years of experience I can’t answer the questions with the depth of understanding I believe warranted.

So, as you are likely used to if you’re a long-time reader here at …the house… I leave you without answers, only more questions. (“I know that I know nothing,” said Socrates.) I hope they are new questions: what is your vision/what is your talent/what do you love/how do we wake up? It’s a new year and if nothing else, a set of new questions gives us something to work on.



Christopher Hitchens

In Death, Writers, Writing on December 16, 2011 at 8:40 am

From: More Intelligent (The Economist)

Reprinted without permission:

~ Posted by Tim de LIsle, December 16th 2011

By their tweets shall ye know them. The death of Christopher Hitchens, the polemicist and boulevardier, came not as a shock, but still as a blow to many, and thousands of them were moved to comment on Twitter. Some just said they were sad, a fine sentiment but a fairly pointless one to broadcast to the world, because it’s not about you—it’s a lot sadder for family and close friends—and there’s not much point grabbing people by the lapels if you don’t have anything to say. Happily, many tweeters pushed themselves harder. Here’s a snapshot of some of the different approaches; tallies of followers have been trimmed to the nearest round number.

Salman Rushdie (150,000 followers) struck a note seldom heard on Twitter—the epic.

Goodbye, my beloved friend. A great voice falls silent. A great heart stops. Christopher Hitchens, April 13, 1949-December 15, 2011.

That line was widely quoted, and given prominence by the BBC. Among those who saw it there was the biographer and Intelligent Life contributing editor Julie Kavanagh, a friend of Hitchens, who said it was “the only time I’ve been moved to tears by a tweet”.

Richard Dawkins (283,000 followers), who has an interview with Hitchens in his role as guest editor of this week’s New Statesman, went for epic with added polemic:

Christopher Hitchens, finest orator of our time, fellow horseman, valiant fighter against all tyrants including God.

Tony Parsons (20,000 followers), the columnist and novelist, told a story:

Memory of Christopher Hitchens. 20 years ago—a live TV debate. Never saw anyone drunker in a green room. Never saw anyone sharper on air.

Matthew Sweet (2,000 followers), the BBC Radio 3 presenter and Intelligent Life regular, had a crisp vignette:

My #Hitch moment: singing a song about Tom Paine with him to the tune of God Save the Queen. He had a deep whisky & cigarettes bass.

At a moment like this, you see the importance of tone. Richard Bacon (1.37m followers), the BBC DJ, found the acceptable face of the “I’m sad” school of thought:

Oh bugger. Christopher Hitchens has died.

He was echoed by the young rock band Wild Beasts (13,000 followers), who were matey but sharp:

Christopher Hitchens, you old contrarian, RIP, in anywhere but heaven.

Violet Towers (400 followers), a probation officer who writes under a pseudonym, quoted Hitchens himself, elegantly:

“The four most overrated things in life are champagne, lobster, anal sex and picnics.”—Christopher Hitchens

The devout faced a dilemma: to chide or not to chide. One of them published a vindictive line about Hitchens and hell which is too dismal to quote in full. Another, the journalist Cristina Odone (700 followers), struck a happier note, as well as finding room for a gerund:

RIP #ChrisHitchens For 40 years being a journalist meant trying to be like the #Hitch. He’d laugh at my praying for him, but I will

Sterling Sunley, a book-lover from Vancouver (0 followers—quite a feat), gently upbraided some of the duller tweeters around him:

The person I would most like to hear about the legacy of Christopher Hitchens is Hitch himself; he would suffer no false sentiments.

Stephen Fry (3.5m followers), the actor, writer and British national treasure, marked the gravity of the occasion by restricting himself to only two adjectives, and going big on verbs instead:

Goodbye, Christopher Hitchens. You were envied, feared, adored, reviled and loved. Never ignored. Never bested. A great and marvellous man

There was plenty of warmth, but not much wit. Almighty God (27,000 followers)— one of several characters of that name on Twitter—did His best to fill the breach:

In honor of Christopher Hitchens I will admit it just this once: I Am Not Great.

while the writer Lisa Appignanesi (800 followers) found humour in the obituary on the Guardian site:

Laughing while reading an obit is an event only #Hitch makes possible

Someone said Hitchens had a God-given talent for writing—that might have really irritated him. And so might the fact that the tributes were joined by Piers Morgan, a journalist of a very different stripe. But in the best of these tweets, you could see what Hitchens himself stood for: vision, spark, the power of the word.

Tim de Lisle is editor of Intelligent Life