I read a lot of stuff. Much of it is for school, but when I can find the time, I like to read just for the fun of it, too, and I have always found that pleasure reading is just as intellectual and conveys just as much knowledge and school reading. For example, here is something I have learned through extensive pleasure reading: Douglas Adams was really clever. He was both a skilled writer and an all-around genius who either had extremely varied fields of knowledge or was very talented at using knowledge he didn’t even have. Either way, reading a book by Douglas Adams is both an enjoyable and an intellectual experience.
My familiarity with Douglas Adams’ writing is primarily limited to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. I actually hadn’t read those books until about the time the movie came out, which Google informs me was in 2005. That means that I was fourteen, (well, thirteen and a half; it was in the spring) and I’m almost a little embarrassed to admit that I hadn’t already read the books by then. I knew that my father liked them and I seem to recall that he had recommended them to me on more than one occasion, but yet I somehow didn’t read them until there was a movie ready to be watched shortly thereafter. Given the fact that I have always considered myself to be a greater book-lover than movie-lover, I cannot justify the movie-centric priorities that I displayed as a thirteen-and-a-half year old. But this is unimportant, because the point is that I did in fact read the books and I loved them and have since read them many times and continued to love them every time.
This blog post isn’t about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It’s about another book by Douglas Adams called Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. Sadly, it is the only Douglas Adams book I have read apart from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, but it has greatly reinforced and increased my high opinion of Douglas Adams and has reminded me that I must find and read more Douglas Adams books, particularly The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul. Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency was written in 1987, which was three years after So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, (The fourth Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy book) and five years before Mostly Harmless (the fifth and last Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy book). In many ways, most notably the writing style, it is very similar to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, but it is certainly a book worth enjoying, admiring, and discussing in its own right.
Douglas Adams, like great British writers before him, (this is an allusion to Shakespeare, by the way) is remarkable for his skill in characterization. Not only are the characters memorable and interesting, but Douglas Adams is very good at realistically articulating the thoughts of apparently normal characters in ridiculous situations, ridiculous characters in apparently normal situations, and any kind of character in any kind of situation between the two extremes. If I was writing an unreasonably long paper arguing that Douglas Adams’ characterization is just as brilliant as Shakespeare’s, (Oh, why did I not think of that several months ago? That would have been such an awesome English senior seminar paper!) I could take several pages giving textual examples. But I am not writing a paper here and I don’t have a minimum length, but I do have a minimum amount of time to dedicate to this blog post, so I will instead stick to a couple characters in the book I am specifically discussing.
Richard and Susan are both pretty normal people. They are talented and notably intelligent people, (Richard works with computers and Susan is a cellist) but they act and think more or less like any other Earth human who has never encountered extra-terrestrial technology or been faced with paradoxes of the space-time continuum. Richard is absent-minded and obsessed with his job; Susan is his girlfriend who wishes he would step away from the computer screen a bit more often. Richard is somewhat in trouble with his boss because he’s behind schedule on certain tasks; Susan is his boss’s sister who is annoyed that her brother leaves long rambling messages on her answering machine telling her to pressure Richard into getting his work done. But somewhere along the line, they get involved in a bizarre course of events that involves a murder and police investigation, a ghost, and inexplicable anomalies in the fabric of space and time, which Richard cannot solve with his computer simulations.
Then there’s Reg, an eccentric and absent-minded professor who reminds me very much of a certain professor I have had, except that Reg is even odder and his conversation is even more convoluted. Like the aforementioned professor, Reg is inherently likable, even though the reader can tell right away that there’s something extremely strange about him. If nothing else, it’s weird that he’s a professor and nobody knows exactly what his field is. The fact that his position is called “the Regius Professorship of Chronology” is a hint, but not a very specific one. Reg’s extreme absent-mindedness, which first appears to be a trait that Douglas Adams uses just for the sake of characterizing Reg according to a stereotype and adding an extra touch of humor, turns out to be part of the plot. That’s another thing about Douglas Adams; many of the most random and silly side-notes of the beginning of the story later turn out to be significant and incredibly brilliant plot twists.
And there’s Dirk Gently himself, a character who cannot be described in any way other than to quote directly from the book itself. When Reg casually mentions Dirk, formally known as Svlad Cjelli, Richard “wondered what had lately become of his former… was friend the word? He seemed more like a succession of extraordinary events than a person. The idea of him actually having friends as such seemed not so much unlikely, more a sort of mismatching of concepts, like the idea of the Suez crisis popping out for a bun.” Richard and Svlad had known each other as undergraduate students, during which time Svlad had spread the rumor that he was psychic by denying it far more vehemently than necessary and then failing to disprove it. This, as Douglas Adams emphasizes, is the best way to make up a convincing story. Now, Dirk Gently is a terribly unsuccessful private detective who believes in the interrelatedness of all things so strongly that he deems it necessary to go sit on a beach in Bermuda while working on a case concerning a missing cat. Dirk Gently is the kind of character who can spout off fascinating theories regarding Schrodinger’s cat that almost make sense in once chapter, admit that he was just saying that to be ridiculous in another chapter, and later yet, say profound and quotable things like, “It is a rare mind indeed that can render the hitherto nonexistent blindingly obvious. The cry ‘I could have thought of that’ is a very popular and misleading one, for the fact is that they didn’t, and a very significant and revealing fact it is too. This, if I am not mistaken, is the staircase we seek. Shall we ascend?” I left that last bit in there because I like it and intend to use it in regular conversation whenever possible.
There are many other brilliant things about the book that I don’t have time to describe in any detail, such as the Electric Monk and Richard’s sofa that’s stuck in an impossible place on the stairs. One of the best things about Douglas Adams’ stories is those random details that seem so simple and/or humorous, but required an extreme degree of intelligence and creativity to write. And there are many other wonderfully quotable lines from the book that I don’t have time to quote. Another one of the best things about Douglas Adam’s stories is that they are rife with clever and quotable lines. But I think that the thing I like the absolute most about Douglas Adams is that his writing style is so memorable and even inspiring. Every now and then, I read over something I’ve written and notice a phrase or sentence that sounds a little like Douglas Adams, or even a group of sentences that express a very Douglas-Adams-esque idea. When Douglas Adams’ influence manifests itself in my own writing, those are the times that I am most satisfied with my writing, because he has set the standard to which I aspire. Maybe that’s a little funny, because in some cases, (obviously not the one quoted above) his wording and phrasing is so simple and vernacular and his ideas seem so natural. One reads Douglas Adams and thinks to oneself, “I could have thought of that!” But the fact is that one didn’t, and a very significant and revealing fact it is, too. This, if I am not mistaken, is the staircase we seek. Shall we ascend?