Mortality is a collection of writer Christopher Hitchens’ last essays for Vanity Fair. They all touch on his surprise cancer diagnosis and the slow march towards death. The book also includes an introduction by Hitchen’s longtime editor Graydon Carter and a valedictory essay by his wife, Carol Blue, along with scattered notes that Hitchens left behind at the time of his death.
The entire book deals with Hitchen’s sudden affliction with cancer, his treatment, and to a lesser extent, his thoughts on religion, and the book’s namesake–mortality. As always, Hitchen’s writing is so clear and crisp that casual readers may find it hard to understand. Hitchens’ vocabulary is massive and the precision with which he describes his arguments can, quite ironically, make it hard to grasp unless you read slowly.
Hitchens’ writing was–as far as I know–never laced with personal emotion, and this writing continues that trend. There are no bittersweet stories or heart-wrenching tales about the impact that cancer was having on his life. No, one of the essays deals with religion and primarily serves as a way for him to decisively refute any rumors that his atheism was wavering in the face of imminent death.
Ultimately Mortality would’ve been stronger if it were written and intended to be a book. As a collection of essays it lacks a bit of cohesion it might have had otherwise. To a strange degree I also found myself surprisingly untouched by the story. Hitchens’ precise, rational tone pushed away some of the emotional implications of the tremendously difficult ordeals he describes.
One of the best parts of the book is the final essay by Carol Blue which reveals a softer side to a man who was often defined in public by (brilliant) debates and arguments.
Mortality is worth reading, but it is–to my surprise–not a book that dramatically altered my views on life and death. I don’t ruminate about this book–but I had expected that I would. Perhaps that was an unrealistic standard. And, maybe, on that count I’m lucky. Although death awaits us all, being mentally consumed by it while we are (blessedly) still of good health has little purpose.