Review: Arguably

It took me quite a while to develop an opinion about Christopher Hitchens’s Arguably, a collection of his essays. My recollection was that many of the essays were book reviews for the New York Times.  These are a kind of essay unto themselves, often touching only lightly on the book under review and letting the reviewer expound their ideas at length in the service of evaluating the book.  These are most interesting to read if you have a horse in the race.  For a lot of the essays in Arguably, I did not. They’re all well written, but often turn on what I would consider minutae.

Then I got to “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” That’s a well-written, completely wrong essay.  Understanding why it irritated me was a very illuminating experience, both about these essays and persuasive essays in general.  The essay in question is as good an argument as could be constructed for the position.  Hitchens points out the job statistics about numbers of professional funny women, trots out some evolutionary justification, mixes in a few personal observations and structures it all in a way that draws the reader’s attention to where his points are strong and away from where they’re not.  It combines the techniques of a good legal argument with the rhythms of a troubadour.  I just disagree with virtually all of it.

That’s where I understood that Arguably is exactly what it says on the tin.  It’s a collection of arguments – or argument starters – not a philosophy.  It’s good to remember that most opinion pieces are exactly that, and that scholarship and compositional skill do not imply one’s position is correct.

Looking at Arguably through this lens, it becomes a more interesting and less vexing experience.  There is much to like about the essays in terms of composition – and certainly in the vocabulary.  I even agree with much of what Hitchens says (that I care about anyway).  There are a lot of them here, too.


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