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The Essential Douglas Adams

If you’ve never read any Douglas Adams book, you have been depriving yourself of something supremely marvelous all your life. The situation must be immediately remedied, so get yourself to a bookseller NOW. Without overstating things, his work will change your perspective of the world, and the world will be better for it.
Douglas Adams on our reaction to technology
The American publisher of Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series was of the opinion that the four-letter "F" word used in the books was far from being appropriate. So, instead of doing away with the word completely, the writer replaced it with "Belgium".
The word "essential" in the title isn’t meant to be indicative of "the specific works of Adams that one must read". No. Here, "essential" refers to the man in his entirety and his vital presence in the literary world itself.

The world lost a figurative and literal giant (the man was 6'5" tall) on May 11, 2001. Douglas Noël Adams was a writer like no other—not a composer of flowery prose but a deep and concrete thinker who used dry humor and wit to engage the reader and trigger profound thought waves. He counted P.G. Wodehouse and Jane Austen among his biggest literary inspirations (his other favorites being Charles Dickens, Kurt Vonnegut, and Ruth Rendell), and it shows in his writing—if you’ve managed to grow to adulthood without ever having read any Adams at all, realize that your life is about to be changed and you will never see the world in exactly the same way ever again as soon as you venture into the eccentric realms conjured by this word wizard. Get thee to a bookstore and purchase the following, then cancel all engagements for the next couple of weeks. You won’t be able to put this stuff down, and you’ll re-read it all over and over again.

The Hitchhiker's Trilogy

The Hitchhiker's Trilogy is actually a series of five books (a testament to Adams’ delightful weirdness):
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
  • The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
  • Life, the Universe and Everything
  • So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish
  • Mostly Harmless
and a short story called
  • Young Zaphod Plays It Safe
The original book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide, is most people’s gateway drug to Adams addiction, and it has been endlessly adapted. It actually began as a BBC radio show before it became a book, but since then it went on to be made into a play, a website, a computer game, and a dreadful movie (do not judge the books based on that embarrassment). The series chronicles the adventures of Arthur Dent, a mild-mannered Englishman who suddenly finds himself traversing space and time in the company of a man from Betelgeuse named Ford Prefect. It’s ridiculous, hilarious, and contains much sneaky commentary on the way we live now. And in case you are wondering why a series of five books is referred to as a trilogy, you should know that the US edition of the fifth book was first released with the following legend printed on the cover:

The fifth book in the increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker's Trilogy.

Dirk Gently

Although Adams is most well-known for HHGG, he also wrote two books about a private detective named Dirk Gently, who will remind you of Wodehouse’s character Psmith (although without the attention to fashion). We meet Gently in Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, and catch up with him later in The Long, Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. There was the possibility of Adams' last book called The Salmon of Doubt becoming a third Dirk Gently book (he does appear in it), but it may also have meant to be a final book for the Hitchhiker's Trilogy. Regardless, Dirk Gently is unlike any detective you’ve read about before. He’s psychic but doesn’t believe in that garbage, and although he charges exorbitant rates, he claims that he’s never cheated anyone because he’s never been paid. His stories involve traveling to Valhalla and watching an angry eagle turn into a fighter jet in his living room, and also befriending Thor. Definitely worth a read.

Last Chance to See

Douglas Adams was also a staunch conservationist, and he teamed up with naturalist Mark Carwardine to travel the world and learn about endangered species. Last Chance to See was the result of those travels, and was released as both a radio documentary and a book that is a must in your collection. The duo travels to New Zealand to see the Kakapo (a hilarious bird), to Komodo to see the dragons, to Zaire to see gorillas and rhinos, to China to see the Yangtze River dolphin, and more. This was in the late '80’s—in 2009, Stephen Fry (a friend of Adams) joined Carwardine on a trip to see how these animals fared in the intervening years, and the result was the BBC series of the same name. Last Chance to See will make you smile because of the sheer delight that is Adams' voice and style of writing, but the room will get dusty on you once or twice as you process the gravity of the situation.

The Salmon of Doubt

The Salmon of Doubt is a posthumous release of all the bits and pieces of leftover writing that Adams left behind. It contains the unfinished The Salmon of Doubt, which heartbreakingly ends before it even really gets started, along with essays, letters, articles, and blurbs he had written for magazines, websites, and, in some cases, for no reason at all. Despite not being an actual coherent novel, The Salmon of Doubt gives you an idea of who Adams was as a person. His writings paint a picture of an author who is a jolly, happy man with a very peculiar world view—and his friends agree. The book also contains several eulogies from those closest to the man, and ends with the program of his memorial service.

Read this book last, after all the others. It’s an end that comes way too soon, and you’ll spend at least a week upset over the fact that there will never be another word written by this man despite the fact that you desperately want to read more. But so it goes. When the greats pass on, they leave a hole in our hearts.

Adams was an atheist, but you can be forgiven for hoping he was proven wrong in the end, and that he’s having tea with Wodehouse and Austen right now. Maybe they’ll save you a seat.
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Published: October 21, 2013
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