Looking for something new to read but don’t know where to start? This new series will introduce you to some of your librarians’ favorite authors. This week we’re starting with the great, the glorious, the goofy Douglas Adams.
Adams was born Douglas Noel Adams in Cambridge, UK, in 1952. That same year just down the road at Cambridge University, Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling took an X-ray diffraction image of a double-helix of DNA and by 1953 fellow Cambridgians James Watson and Francis Crick got all the discovery credit when they produced a model of the double helix structure. Adams often joked that he, having the initials “DNA” beat Watson and Crick to the punch by several months.
As a young man, Adams attended Cambridge and joined the Footlights, a student-run comedy group that, much like Saturday Night Live in the US, acted as the training ground for some of the most famous British comedians of our time. The early members of Monty Python came out of Footlights, and for a time Adams honed his comedy writing skills with the popular troupe.
His most famous work, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, didn’t start out as a book but a radio program. He claimed to have come across the idea while lying drunk in a field outside Innsbruck, Austria, as he hitchhiked across Europe. Eventually the radio show became a book which became a series, then an interactive computer game, comic book adaptation, and two TV shows. Not until after his death in 2001 would the first book finally make its way onto the silver screen. Fans of the series latched onto “42,” the answer to life, the universe, and everything, and established Towel Day, May 25, because as we all know, a person who knows where their towel is is clearly a person to be reckoned with.
He also wrote the Dirk Gently series about a “holistic detective” who believes in the “fundamental interconnectedness of all things” yet specializes in finding lost cats and messy divorces, and two television adaptations have come out of it. The Salmon of Doubt was published posthumously and collected together his scattered articles, speeches, and a draft of what was to become the 6th book in the H2G2 trilogy. He also co-wrote with John Lloyd The Meaning of Liff and its sequel The Deeper Meaning of Liff, wherein they took names of towns and created definitions out of them for common experiences. It was a “dictionary of things that there aren’t any words for yet,” such as Greeley – “Someone who continually annoys you by continually apologising for annoying you” and Shoeburyness – “The vague uncomfortable feeling you get when sitting on a seat that is still warm from somebody else’s bottom.”
In his later years Adams became a staunch conservationist and environmentalist. With Mark Carwardine, he visited endangered animals in remote locales all over the world and compiled his experiences into Last Chance to See. At once heartwarming and heartbreaking, the book is a passionate, critical look at how some humans are destroying the world for a little profit and how others have sacrificed everything to save it.
Adams died unexpectedly from a heart attack at 49 years old, leaving behind a wife, young daughter, and a vast legacy of contributions to science fiction, literature, technology, atheism, and conservation. He was a huge tech geek and loved every new gadget, gizmo, and googah, especially if it was made by Apple.
As one of the preeminent science fiction writers of the 20th century, Adams redefined the genre and inspired legions of younger writers. His quirky blend of bizarre science and techno mumbo-jumbo blended perfectly with his off kilter sense of humor and a sarcasm so dry it would make the Sahara look like an oasis.
Recommended reading: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (available at the MA Library) and Last Chance To See.