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The Great Re-Reading: Douglas Adams

Posted by on November 26, 2012

Pursuing my project of reading all my fiction books, I’ve now read my way through all my Douglas Adams. Here’s a surprising thing which I had forgotten: Douglas Adams was a great writer but his editors were kind of out to lunch. (This might explain the acerbic section in the Hitchhiker’s series discussing the lengthy lunching-out traditions of the fictitious editors of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) The first book particularly was clearly never expected to go anywhere. Adams obviously wrote two or three intros to the book, and while a competent editor should have pared these down to one solid intro in the final draft, these were all left intact instead. Or, for example, the character Ford Prefect is introduced with all relevant details early on and then re-introduced with the same details on a footnote a few pages later. And there are smaller issues: sentences that use the same word twice, typos, the occasional attribution mistake in dialogue. These are the reasons authors need editors — they’re almost impossible to see in one’s own work. So that was all a bit disappointing.

But I was pleased to find that Adams as a writer is very enjoyable to re-read, and partly it’s because his books tend to meander away from the central plot so much. It’s impossible to remember all the little side roads he takes you down — the civilizations he casually describes and then never refers to again, or the odd little commentaries on life, the universe and everything that he sandwiches in between spaceship-hopping hijinks. So revisiting these is a lot like reading them for the first time.

Though I like most of the five books in the increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker’s trilogy, if I had to choose a favorite Douglas Adams book I’d go with the second Dirk Gently novel, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. As an added bonus, this is clearly the forerunner to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, so if you thought that was too moody or dragging, this is the book for you.

Least favorite is probably Mostly Harmless, which starts out with horrible things happening to my favorite characters, middles in a really dreadful way and then, as a change of pace, ends wretchedly. All Adams’ books have a kind of weary despair behind the humor and deal with the ways in which sentient life is maybe the worst thing that could have happened to any other kind of life in the universe, but a Pollyanna-type like me can mostly enjoy the funny parts and laugh off the world view in the other books. It’s only in this, the final Hitchhiker’s book, that Adams is determined to make me see his point. If a dose of grim reality is your thing, I say go for it; otherwise, consider stopping with the fourth book in this series, which is great and very Up With People.

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