|Volume Nineteen: 14 May 2001|
A technology or two ago, grave news came with at least a bit of a
warning. Delivered with the learned austerity and sobriety of a
Hans von Kaltenborn, Ed Murrow, or, later, Walter Cronkite,
terrible events came with a palpable weight. For whatever their
weaknesses as media, radio and television, at the very least,
set a mood to match the information being disseminated. In this
medium, wonderful as it often is, seeing "Author Douglas Adams dies"
as a link in the middle of a bunch of news stories at a generic
portal site, didn't quite brace me appropriately for a terrible blow.
Douglas Adams, if you haven't noted from bumping around elsewhere on the site, has been one of the major architects of my cultural universe for quite a long time. Listing the guy first on my list of favorite authors on my mini-bio page wasn't unintentional. With the possible exception of Bill James, Douglas Adams is the one guy I've probably pilfered the most from in the development of my own writing style. Or attempted to pilfer from, in any event...having that kind of wit and intelligence isn't something that's easily borrowed; anyone who's ever heard me try to tell a joke, I think, can confirm, as much as I might fancy myself a witty guy, I am, to pilfer for the moment from Lloyd Bentsen, no Douglas Adams.
Beyond being a hell of a writer, Adams served, in a period long before I made ritual hops over the pond to see Allison, one of my great sources of information about things British. While this surely serves as evidence that I shouldn't be let within 500 yards of a history classroom (my current position at UCLA notwithstanding), I count myself among the fortunate for having his body of work among the reference points informing my worldview. Despite the less than charitable things he says about the LA Basin in So Long and Thanks for All the Fish -- a book that's certainly one of my half-dozen favorite works of fiction and might just plain be my favorite book, period -- Adams, among his many talents, was a great cultural geographer; sixteen years before Daniel Rodgers's Atlantic Crossings, the aforementioned So Long and Thanks for All the Fish served as a sort of entry point for my own thinking about the "Atlantic World," a subject I've since spent an awful lot of time on. Despite whatever ambivalences the man had about the region that's been home for the majority of my years, he took up residence about 90 miles up the coast (in Santa Barbara) a while ago and, as such, has had a foot in the two worlds I've committed an awful lot of my intellectual energy to understanding for a while now.
Most of all, though, Douglas Adams was a hell of a writer. His unmatched skill in turning a phrase was really only the beginning of his talents; his ability to make a profound point in the middle of some absurd passage was remarkable. His ability, particularly in Last Chance to See, to find the absurd in the midst of the profound, was no less remarkable. A good many of the passages in virtually all his works are mind-bogglingly dense, yet you'd be hard-pressed to find a ponderous paragraph in the entirety of the Adams canon (this makes an impact on a guy like me, whose writing is about as light as Beyond Good and Evil). It's a cliche at this point to note that he could do it all -- fiction, non-fiction, funny, serious, clear, obscure, simple, complex -- and do it all well. Though the guy was immersed in computers and technology (playing the early text-based "Hitchhikers" game was an exercise in absurdity itself), he was, as Last Chance to See serves witness, a committed environmentalist.
I didn't have any special connection to the man, insofar as I was never more than a guy who read everything he wrote; there are literally millions of people who qualify for that category. The massive outpouring on the Douglas Adams web site is more than evidence enough to demonstrate that I'm not alone in my fondness for his work. But great art (and yes, I do consider his work "great art") can entertain, edify, and inspire...and that connection, even if it's replicated in the millions, is special. At the risk of embarrassing myself by fawning over a man who made a living, in the main, writing generally humorous science-fiction, Douglas Adams's work entertained, edified, and inspired me over a period of a couple of decades, which is no mean feat. He will be missed.