Books That Built Us: ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ by Douglas Adams
When I first picked up “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” it was one of those nights that doesn’t come with any specific days attached. I was 10 or 11 years old, lying on the floor next to my brother in the darkened study of my mom’s boyfriend’s apartment in Jacksonville. I couldn’t sleep.
The fact that I couldn’t sleep, in my opinion, had less to do with being on the floor and more to do with the fact that I could hear my mom and her boyfriend talking downstairs. It was the night before Thanksgiving and before my now-stepfather’s birthday, and they were trying to have a nice time, just the two of them: drinking wine, talking in hushed voices on the couch and laughing at each other’s jokes. This was before they got engaged, before I had any idea that I would eventually wind up making a home for myself in Florida. At the moment, I was just a kid marooned in the darkness of a study, kept awake by my own anger and indignation, which resurfaced every time I heard another sound from downstairs.
I had no watch, but it felt as though eternities were passing, suspended there in the darkness next to my sleeping brother while soft laughs and snatches of conversation drifted below me, annoying me for no rational reason. I ended up resorting to the bookcase, which sat against the wall only a foot or two away from me. I picked out a book at random: a smallish paperback with a shiny blue cover.
I read until I couldn’t hear anything at all.
I had never read anything like “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” before, and I don’t think I ever have since. I loved it at the time because it was simply fun to read. The opening passage, which explains outer space and the position of humanity before zooming in to focus on a house, felt to me like the beginning of some broad, galactic fairy tale. The book was full of thoughtful, omniscient musings on the total improbability and absurdity of the universe, with language that sounded comfortable, as though it were possible to acknowledge such things and still feel safe and self-assured.
And yet it was the characters who really stood out to me, who stick with me to this day. I loved Zaphod, with his wildly unpredictable schemes and strangely touching quest to recover his past self, and Marvin, the iconic robot who would respond to a question like “What’s up?” with “I don’t know, I’ve never been there.” I was enchanted by Ford, who accepts the dangerous and the tortuous with matter-of-fact fairness, and Trillian, the spontaneous mathematician who could fly an alien spaceship and stand up for herself in a room full of men in the middle of an apocalypse. I identified with all of them in turns, but perhaps most of all Arthur, who embarks on his own journey so haphazardly and cluelessly and yet tries to do his best at every step of the way.
These were characters who were faced every day with the destructive, nonsensical nature of the universe. And while they were almost never sure of themselves in anything, they also remained unfazed. They expected nothing specific of life, and when life gave them exactly that, they didn’t feel the need to do anything other than stay true to themselves. They could get arrested by Vogons, thrown back and forth through time and space, be cornered by soldiers, shot at and have their home planets destroyed. Marvin would still be miserable, and Zaphod would still be ridiculously over-the-top. In one of the climactic scenes, Ford decides he’s going to investigate what’s going on, and he asks the others, “Is no one going to say, ‘No, you can’t possibly, let me go instead?’” When they all shake their heads, he says, “Oh well,” and stands up and goes anyway. Because that’s just what Ford would do.
I ended up stealing the paperback from my mom’s boyfriend and rereading it over and over. Eventually, as a gift, I received the bound Barnes & Noble Classics edition of “The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide,” featuring all five books in the series plus a short story. I fell in love with the way Adams could tell a story, deeply clever but seemingly effortless. By some miracle, each character was compelling and dynamic, despite the fact that the writing itself really doesn’t spend very much time in their heads. The story is a comedy and an adventure, but it’s also surprisingly sad, complex and thoughtful. My reaction to any given line or scene depends in large part on the day, whether I’m feeling bored — in which case I’ll turn to any given page and start laughing — or truly down and emotionally vulnerable, in which case some of the story’s more existential preoccupations will really stick with me.
Maybe this is part of why it’s so easy to return to this story over and over again. It works for any day. I want to think like Trillian, react like Ford, party like Zaphod, love like Arthur. I don’t want to feel depressed or wry or cynical, but when I am feeling it anyway, I want to be able to articulate it like Marvin.
I still have both copies with me, the black and gold classic volume and the paperback, which is now worn, with dog-eared pages and a creased spine. I flip through them whenever I need to drown out the world, telling myself, “hey, it could always be worse. My entire planet could be destroyed — and look, these people’s planet was destroyed, and they’re still doing OK.” Then, eventually, I set the book back down and go out into my own world again, knowing that it will not make any sense and that I shouldn’t expect too much of it, and telling myself not to panic along the way.