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The Great American Read: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Great American Read - The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

The Great American Read is a new eight-part series from PBS that explores and celebrates the power of reading, told through America’s 100 best-loved novels. Join the conversation with PBS and WUCF! 

Read the list of 100 books.
Vote for your favorite.
Share your love of reading using #GreatReadPBS

The series returns to WUCF on September 11 at 8 p.m.
For more information and to vote, visit pbs.org/greatamericanread

I heard the radio play before I ever read the story.

In fact, I had only heard Episode 2 of the BBC radio play before I ever realized The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy was an actual book (HHGG, or H2G2, as the really hoopy froods call it).

Episode 2 of H2G2 changed my life.

I was 15 years old, and in that 30 minutes, I truly learned what satire was. I learned what irony was. I learned that it could be delicious. I learned that language could be hilarious, beyond a 15-year-old’s usual métier of fart jokes and booger jokes. I listened to Episode 2 on cassette tape over and over before Episode 3 aired the following week.

And it sent me spiraling down a life path where I could not only write essays that used “fart” and “booger” in a serious academic manner, I could use words like “métier” without sounding like a complete boob.

I didn’t get my own copy of H2G2 until I was three episodes into the series, which was playing on my local NPR station in Muncie, Indiana. I decided I couldn’t wait for nine more weeks to find out how the story ended, so I bought the book and read it in one evening.

And I fell in love.

I fell in love with unlikely scenarios exaggerated into complete silliness. I fell in love with recognizing ridiculous behavior, like our obsessions with digital watches and the movement of small green pieces of paper. I fell in love with seemingly-random chances that had phone numbers-long probabilities. I fell in love with adverbs and adjectives. (Which I later broke up with after reading Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. But my affair, like most teenage romances, was passionate and tumultuous and I was mind-bogglingly in love.)

But H2G2 and a few other books (including Catch-22, which made PBS’s The Great American Read list, and Breakfast of Champions, which did not) made me want to be a writer. When I saw how satire about the human condition could be couched as entertainment, and that you could make people laugh by pointing out their foibles, I knew I wanted to do that.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy has become a cultural touchstone for any serious science fiction nerd, computer programmer, engineer or electronics wizard, and you can see signs everywhere if you know where to look.

Characters’ names pop up in unusual spaces, like the names of early computer servers and computer networks. Saying someone has a “heart of gold” brings secret snickers and knowing looks from the properly initiated.

Spot the number “42” on any piece of technology and it’s a calling card for those of us in the special secret cub of H2G2 fans. It’s the way we tell each other, “I passed this way.” It’s our own special “Kilroy Was Here.”

(Another calling card? Using “mind-bogglingly” earlier did not set off my computer spell-checker.)

There are so many cultural references that fans know and celebrate nearly 40 years later. We know the name of the worst poet in the Universe. We know what’s written on the cover of the Guide in large, friendly letters. We know what a whale says when it appears several miles above the surface of a long dead planet. We know the name of the Restaurant at the End of the Universe. We know the ultimate answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. We even know the Ultimate Question.

And we, definitely, always know where our towel is.

Douglas Adams was 49 years old when he died in 2001, and we’ll never know how far he could have taken his five-book trilogy or his two Dirk Gently detective stories. He was always abusing extended deadline after extended deadline, promising stories and books to his editors and agents that never seemed to arrive on time, if at all.

As he told an interviewer once, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.”

And that lovely sentiment was in some small way commemorated by the fact that I turned this essay in 10 days later than I was supposed to.

Erik Deckers is a professional writer, book author, radio theater playwright and newspaper humor columnist. He was the Spring 2016 writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in College Park, and currently serves on their board of directors.

You can follow Deckers on Twitter @edeckers.

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