Throughout middle school, I swear I always had a copy of a Douglas Adams book with me. That’s almost certainly not true, since he was only two books into his five-volume trilogy launched in 1979 with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Still, I have strong memories of sitting in a classroom on the ground floor of the north building of Stoughton Middle School with a well-worn copy of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe sitting on the corner of my desk, undoubtedly in the vain hope that I might be able to rapidly devour a paragraph or two between math problems. That was the level of my commitment to the comedic novels depicting the travails of unwilling space traveler Arthur Dent: I didn’t want them to get too far out of my sight. I loaned my chunky paperback of Galaxy out to a friend once and spent weeks in dizzy agony at the thought that it might not be returned, a reasonable worry given the spotty responsibility level of most twelve-year-olds. In retrospect, I think the problem stemmed from the sensation that I was loaning out a part of myself, the book tapping into so many of my traits — geekiness, oddball humor, sarcasm — that I identified with it more fiercely than just about anything I’d read up to that point. Let others on the cusp of their teenage years get wrapped up in the bruised knuckle romanticism of S.E. Hinton or the rugged survival stories of Jack London. Me? I was more concerned with knowing where my towel was.
Much as I stand by the notion that the various books in the series spoke to me because they matched who I was, I think they also helped edge me towards an understanding of the acceptability of my distance from the sort of science fiction and fantasy fan I figured I ought to be. My handful of friends who read comics at the same rate as I did uniformly were fans of science fiction and fantasy novels. I felt weirdly guilty that I didn’t share the same proclivities. While I dabbled in such books, usually delivered in thick tomes the vague thickness of a cinder block, I often found them distancing and even impenetrable, especially those with a more current copyright date (interestingly, I fared better when I sampled the groundbreaking works from a couple decades earlier). The Adams books sort of gave me permission to feel that way. There was a clear affection for the genre, to be sure. There was also a sardonic decimation of its tropes, particularly the imposition of heady philosophical questions on universe-spanning adventures. Anybody looking for evidence of this aspect of the books could probably find about forty-two examples without trying all that hard.
I’m not entirely sure that I even read all of the novels. I know I made it at least as far as 1984’s So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, which was the first book I personally made a point of buying as a hardcover, entirely unable to wait the extra time for it to be issued in the cheaper paperback form. Mostly Harmless was published when I was in college, meaning I was preoccupied with both assigned text and side reading intended to prove my erudition (please, oh please notice the Don DeLillo books on my shelf!). The continuation written after his death certainly held no interest, even with his widow’s blessing and encouragement. I went to those pages for the worldview of Adams. The idea of the characters moving on without him, no matter how expertly the style and voice may be aped, is unthinkable to me.
Adams died in 2001, at the too-young age of 49, felled by a faulty heart. One might reasonably expect that his gravestone would have some wild, creative, witheringly funny epitaph, a message meant to carry his comedic sensibility through the ages. Instead, the engraving it is simplicity itself: his name, the years that mark the beginning and end of his life, and just one other word. That word is “Writer.”