REVIEW: "The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever" -- Not quite canonical

The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever by Christopher Hitchens
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

NOTE: This is a review of the audiobook. For the physical book, I'd probably rate it 4/5.

The Portable Atheist is an interesting anthology. The late "New Atheist" Christopher Hitchens compiled snippets from all corners of the general intellectual tradition that touches on the Abrahamic religions, from people who generally disagreed with the mainstream versions of those religions. That said, I think everything about the title of this book is inaccurate.

First of all, not everyone in this book is, strictly speaking, an atheist, nor are all the excerpts attacking theism or defending atheism. Rather, the unifying antagonists are (1) the notion of a personal god, particularly one that punishes its creations; and (2) the dogmatic religion set up around this notion. A better title might be The Portable Freethinker, and as a collection of people challenging dogma and asserting an unfettered human dignity, it's a pretty good one. If nothing else, some less-famous (or less-famous-as-nonbelievers) choices in here will make good starting points for a wider-ranging library of free thought across the ages.

Notably, though, one has to keep a certain frame of mind while going through the book. Hitchens is sloppy in his introduction, I think, because he says "religion" and "god" when he really means "monotheistic religion such as grew to dominate Europe and the Middle East for the past few millennia"―that's why the furthest East you'll go is the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. One can more easily forgive the historical writers themselves, because in the globally-minded world of the pre-20th c., "religion" really did mean "the Christian religion," and "God" really did mean "the God of Abraham."

The selections, too, vary somewhat in quality and directness to the cause, as it were. Lucretius' De Rerum Natura is mildly interesting, but rather tangential. And Karl Marx's bit (the essay that includes his famous "opium of the people" quote) is overlong and tedious in the extreme: his convolutions of language made it very hard to pay attention or, indeed, to care much about what he was trying to say. The rest of the selections range from good to great.

The audiobook, however, is decidedly less good. The narrator, George Ball, has a fine voice and at times really brings out the rhetorical force of those writers. But the editing (or perhaps his own performance) is such that he at times has a very odd cadence―pausing briefly, but starting again as though on a fresh sentence. It can be jarring. Then there's the problem of Hitchens' introductory remarks on the work, which Ball doesn't read in a different style or even pause before continuing on to the work in question. This confused me more than once. The audiobook format is sometimes less effective than print: for example, H. L. Mencken's "Graveyard of Dead Gods" essay becomes very tedious when read aloud, as it's mostly a list of dead gods from foreign cultures. All the names sort of blur together in the ear. And some of the earlier works (Lucretius, Hobbes) can be tough listening due to their rhetorical structure.

Finally, the audiobook version is disappointingly abridged. I'm not entirely sure why, as the abridged version only comes out to 11 hours: they could have splurged for an extra few more.

Overall I think that the references are more important than the book itself, although (at least in print) it's a fine collection of essays and excerpts. Even for religious people, the voices of the past have some important things to say about all the ways to do religion poorly.

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