My Christopher Hitchens anecdote:
I saw him on the God is Not Great tour in May 2007 at a local synagogue. Rousing lecture. At the post-lecture book signing (for which he absented himself twenty minutes and returned, emitting discreet waves of scotch and Marlboro Reds), he held up the line by talking sweetly and without condescension to old ladies who wanted book recommendations. I hadn’t bought the book yet, so I asked him to sign my copy of Paine’s Age of Reason. His face darkened when he saw the title. “I’m very sorry, sir, but my publisher [eyes roll] ordered me not to sign any book that’s not my own.” He must have seen my momentary embarrassment because he very quickly added, “But let’s keep this one between ourselves because your taste is extraordinary.” He recommended a couple of chapters for me to emphasize and signed my book “with love” from “Hitch.”
Florid patches notwithstanding, Hitchens’ essay on coping with cancer is extraordinary, and quite different from Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, the most recent classic in the “grief writing” genre, in which she mastered with more art than usual her trick of expunging any trace of ego and id from a personal essay. Favorite bit, on becoming a citizen of a “new land”:
The new land is quite welcoming in its way. Everybody smiles encouragingly and there appears to be absolutely no racism. A generally egalitarian spirit prevails, and those who run the place have obviously got where they are on merit and hard work. As against that, the humor is a touch feeble and repetitive, there seems to be almost no talk of sex, and the cuisine is the worst of any destination I have ever visited. The country has a language of its own—a lingua franca that manages to be both dull and difficult and that contains names like ondansetron, for anti-nausea medication—as well as some unsettling gestures that require a bit of getting used to. For example, an official met for the first time may abruptly sink his fingers into your neck. That’s how I discovered that my cancer had spread to my lymph nodes, and that one of these deformed beauties—located on my right clavicle, or collarbone—was big enough to be seen and felt. It’s not at all good when your cancer is “palpable” from the outside. Especially when, as at this stage, they didn’t even know where the primary source was. Carcinoma works cunningly from the inside out. Detection and treatment often work more slowly and gropingly, from the outside in. Many needles were sunk into my clavicle area—“Tissue is the issue” being a hot slogan in the local Tumorville tongue—and I was told the biopsy results might take a week.