Choose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.
Title: Mostly Harmless
Author: Douglas Adams
When I decided to do this feature, I made a list of all the books I would conceivably want to include. I hit twenty-four easily, as you might imagine, and every book on that list felt right. Each of them, indeed, was one that I wanted to write about. That I wanted to share. That I felt belonged.
Except for one. This one.
Now, I’ll make this clear: I like Mostly Harmless. Quite a lot. My reasons for second guessing it have nothing to do with its quality…except maybe in a relative sense. It’s not Douglas Adams’ best work. (That would be Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.) It’s not even the best book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. (That would be Life, the Universe and Everything.) It’s not a book that stands out even to his fans, and if it does it’s probably because it’s one of their least favorites.
But I put it on my list. Before I really started thinking about it, when I was just spitballing titles and seeing what came up, I put it on my list.
And I think it’s because it taught me something important. It will always have a place in my heart for that reason alone.
Before I get to that, though, I do have to reiterate that I genuinely do love the book. I think it’s just about as funny as anything Adams wrote, I think it offers a great (if abrupt, and rather dark) ending to the series as a whole, and I think it’s just good. It probably also helps its reputation in my mind that it follows on from the rather dreadful So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish. I remember reading the first four Hitchhiker’s Guide books in a collection when I was in my teens. I loved the first three…and couldn’t believe how disappointed I was in the fourth. I had to do some research to discover that there even was a fifth book, and I bought it as soon as I could.
I’m glad I did.
Because I love Mostly Harmless. It ended the series on a higher note. It gave me a qualitative kind of closure, even if we can argue about the value of that closure in a narrative sense.
When I reflect on the series as a whole, one of the moments that stands out to me above any other is a sequence from this book, in which Arthur Dent–aimless, luckless refugee from a destroyed Earth–slides into the quiet life of a professional sandwich maker.
After four full novels of adventure, absurdity, cosmic mysteries, confounding truths, dangerous scrapes, bizarre (and insulting) alien creatures, and maybe at least a little bit of single-handedly saving the universe, Arthur finds himself at peace.
At peace making sandwiches.
It’s a perfectly bathetic conclusion to his adventures, and the fact that it’s not exactly his conclusion does nothing to hinder its perfection. If Arthur Dent could have chosen to stop, that’s indeed where he would have stopped. Making sandwiches. One of the few things he’s ever been truly good at. He’s seen the literal end of the universe, and yet is happy to surrender to the repetitive comfort of a simple joy.
It’s probably not a highlight for many of Adams’ fans. For me, it’s a highlight of reading in general.
But that’s still not why I decided to write about this one.
See, when I read Mostly Harmless, I did something I can’t actually imagine doing today: I wrote a letter to thank the author.
It’s important to remember what things were like then. Now we can tweet at authors. Leave a post on their Facebook page. Email their agents. We can do whatever we like, however we’d like to do it.
In a sense, I think, that means less.
Back then, I had to look up an address for him. (I have no idea how I found it. I may have just written to the publishing house.) I had to sit down with a sheet of paper, get my thoughts together, and write them down. I had to buy postage. I had to mail it off, and hope that the international mail service would get it where it needed to go.
Here’s something else interesting: I forgot I wrote to him.
I only remembered years later, when he wrote back.
I think I was in college at the time. I got a letter from an unfamiliar address overseas. It was from Douglas Adams.
He sent me an autographed photo. To this day it hangs on my wall. That was more than I ever could have dreamed of asking of him. (In fact, I’m nearly positive I didn’t ask it of him.)
But he did more than that: he wrote me a letter in return.
A form letter would have been nice, but he answered my questions. He responded to the things I said. It wasn’t long, but it was personal. I must have expressed my appreciation for Mostly Harmless to him, because in his letter he said, “Mostly Harmless is your favorite? I think you’re out on a limb there!”
Yes, I can confirm that I enjoyed the book more than its author did.
It’s important to remember what I was like back then, too. I was a kid. I didn’t read much. I wasn’t well-spoken. My handwriting was terrible, and I am one thousand percent sure I had nothing interesting to say or to share with him. Of all the things in the world that he could have spent his time reading, he chose to read my letter. Because he appreciated it. And then he actually took more time out of his day to write back.
To this day, I remember what it felt like to get his letter. I remember I felt like the most important, fortunate guy in the world. I’m sure that’s why he took the time to reply.
In the years since, people have told me that that’s just who he was. He’d get fanmail, and he’d sit and read every piece, and respond to them, taking as much time as it took. He must have made a lot of people feel like the most important, fortunate people in the world.
That’s the definition of a hero.
He died in 2001. He wasn’t even 50. The world lost a beloved man who seemed to love all of his fans just as much in return.
His letter changed me. As a person, and as a writer.
I’m nowhere near as famous as Douglas Adams was. I wouldn’t dare say I’m anywhere near as talented, either.
But I get fanmail, too. And comments. And Facebook requests from people who read something I wrote on some site at some point and want to connect, for whatever reason.
I make it a point to be gracious. To let them know I appreciate everything they took the time to say. (And I really do.) To thank them for reading, because I know that reading anything I write is an investment of time on their part, and I want to be respectful of that.
I’m not Douglas Adams. I very likely never will be.
But if I can make anybody in this difficult world feel even a little better when they hear back from me…I’m going to do it.