I made my initial rendering of this book 5 stars based on about 3/4 of the way through it. At that point, I’d read about 600 pages of Hitchens mostly reviewing books, discussing history, talking about contemporary writers and thinkers, and addressing a few off-kilter and slightly ill-advised topics like “Why Women Aren’t Funny”. That last essay, I found last strident and offensive than I originally remember it, because his title is more provocative than the essay ends up being.
The book reviews here are stellar. Even when I don’t agree with him in full or feel like he’s approaching a book from a limited perspective, I still think he does a tremendous job of breaking down his thinking, being well-thought, researched, knowledgeable, and reasoned. When he lambasts a book, such as when he reads Pat Buchanan’s trashy Winston Churchill history, it’s downright delicious. His disagreements with figures like Edward Said are reasonable and come from a collegial place (not to say someone must agree with or be collegial with Said, but Said’s detractors are rarely collegial). The worst essays here are the one where he spouts off (even funnily about topics that he’s barely put any thought into and is being purely provocative, like about women or blow jobs).
It’s in the last section, where they’ve collected his essays addressing issues about Islamic states and Islamic fundamentalism where he’s stridency is more hit or miss. He’s right about a lot of things in these essays, and wrong about plenty, and this isn’t the issue, because while he probably wouldn’t agree that he was wrong, I imagine he would handle being shown he’s wrong well. He’s wrongheaded and polemic and ideological in these essays, and fails to recognize the assumptions he’s making, what his limits are, and is still guided by UK-centric enlightenment thinking too much. That’s sometimes fine, and sometimes not. Someone else (sadly not Said) who’s better informed can sort through these essays better than I could, but the last section of this book is dreary, and in a few cases embarrassing, and wholly frustrating. They’re still picked from the full range of the time period here, but collected all together like this here wear a reader out.