Why care about a pile of old book reviews? Hitchens’s didn’t sound like other people’s. He had none of the form’s mannerisms. He rarely praised or blamed; instead, he made distinctions, and he piled up evidence. Often, he barely mentioned the book at hand. This must have infuriated authors, but his readers benefited. For him, the books were occasions; he picked up the bits that interested him and ran with them. (“It’s a book review, not a bouillon cube,” as Nicholson Baker put it, replying to Ken Auletta, who had complained about one of Baker’s similarly rangy reviews in the Book Review.)
The breadth of Hitchens’s references makes you feel that, intellectually, you are having your tires rotated. And he seemed to know everyone, or at least the right sort of people. If he needed to check an anecdote from a book, in pre-internet days, he would call the person involved, usually an old friend. Should critics get on the phone, and get out, more often? In her review of Sidney Lumet’s film “Serpico” in The New Yorker, Pauline Kael mentioned that she had recently taken the real Frank Serpico out for a cup of coffee.
Reviewing a collection of Tom Wolfe’s journalism, Hitchens deplored Wolfe’s affectations and his plummy conservative politics. In the 1960s, he writes, Wolfe made people “feel self-conscious about their lapses into commitment.” Hitchens came of age in the late ’60s, and he knew Bill Clinton, glancingly, at Oxford. When it came to marijuana, Clinton didn’t have to inhale, Hitchens writes, because there were always pot brownies and biscuits around.
Reviewing a biography of the odious J. Edgar Hoover, he wonders how it can be that the headquarters of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is still named after him. Considering Hoover’s hypocrisies, sexual and otherwise, he writes: “I keep an idle watch on new congressmen in Washington, and also on the electronic moralists of the airwaves. No sooner do they start bawling about sodomy and degeneracy than I contentedly set my timepiece. Soon enough, Congressman Snort will be found on all fours in the Capitol men’s room. … ” I will draw a discreet veil over the rest of this pungent sentence.