Douglas Adams changed my life several times, and always for the better.
I was introduced to the work of Douglas Adams (who I always think of as just “Douglas”) in 1987, by a friend of mine at boarding school. (Paul, you remember Carson?) She had Restaurant At the End of the Universe on an LP, and we listened to it every day in her room. We all have our dark days, and 1987 was full of them for me. But from that time forward the darkest of days could be mitigated a little bit by Douglas. I could open to any page in any one of the books in the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy “trilogy” and find a reason to smile. Before long you couldn't catch me without a tattered copy of Life, the Universe, and Everything somewhere on my person.
In 1988 I actually took to carrying a towel with me, in a blue duffel bag that I painted with the raspberry-issuing planets from the early paperback covers.
He taught me to love language, and he pushed me to learn to use the right words. I used to sit with one of his books open and a dictionary beside me —Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, in particular, which I read shortly after it came out. Words like 'crenelated' and 'promontory' I learned from him. And I laughed, and laughed, and laughed. I would never have written a word of my own fiction without him.
In 2001 he lived in my home town. He was going to speak at the university there, on his book Last Chance to See, which I had never read.
I had something going on that night. Nothing I couldn't get out of. I thought: he lives here. He'll speak again.
He died shortly thereafter. That was, in fact, my last chance to see. I never got to meet him, even though he was right there. This, too, changed my life. I haven't been able to shrug off an opportunity the same way since.
It took me another five years to read Last Chance to See, and when I finally did, Douglas did it yet again. This time he made me cry as well as laugh, and the world has never looked the same. My understanding of my place in it changed. I learned how very small I am, and how beautiful and important our non-human neighbors are. I now buy multiple copies of it at a time, just so that I have them on hand to give to people.
Salmon of Doubt was published posthumously. In it are two or three chapters that cover why Douglas was what he called a “radical atheist,” by which, he explains, he means that he just really, really means it. In one of them, he speculates regarding why humans are so determined that the world is Ours, and not Theirs, and why we feel so special about everything.
This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, “This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!”
And for the fifth time he changed my life, and this time he was dead when he did it.
May 25 is Towel Day, which may seem a little silly, but look who we're talking about here.
So tomorrow I'm going to do what I used to do in high school. There will be plenty of other people doing it, too. And maybe I'll pick up Last Chance to See, read a chapter on the Kakapo, and laugh, and a chapter on the Baiji dolphin, and cry.
And I will know where my towel is.
I miss you, Douglas. Thank you for everything.