Death and Material Culture

Christopher Hitchens passed away on Thursday evening from complications related to the cancer he had been fighting for many months. I received this news with a certain startled sadness, even though it was, of course, expected. I hope to post some reflections on Mr. Hitchens with regards to the quality of public discourse in the coming days. For now, I only want to draw attention to a portion of his brother Peter’s reflections published yesterday in the Daily Mail.

Peter Hitchens wrote of one of his last conversations with his brother in which Christopher hoped to return home from the hospital:

“There, he suggested, we could go through his bookshelves, as there were some books and other possessions he wanted me to have. I couldn’t have cared less about these things, but I had greatly hoped to have that conversation, which would have been a particularly good way of saying farewell.”

Admittedly, as Peter Hitchens notes, the objects are nothing compared to the person. But I would think, personally, that they are not therefore entirely insignificant. They are something. And the books especially, for what they meant to the giver, might be a particularly meaningful token.

All of this to say that no one will ever want to go through an e-reader in quite the same way. Only the particularity of the book as object can carry the fullness of meaning and significance that is entailed in passing a thing on to another in this way. It is an aspect of the culture of the book that takes shape around the older form.

This is, in itself, no argument against the utility of e-readers. It is only to note a subtle loss that attends this particular shift in our material culture. And I, for better or for worse, have a temperamental proclivity to register such losses.

Of course, it takes no particular predisposition to register and regret the loss of Mr. Hitchens.

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