In 1987, when I was nine years old, I was living in the tiny village of Afşin, Turkey, with my grandparents — my grandfather was working on a coal refinery project for TEK (the Turkish electric company). We lived in a little compound for the expatriate workers, made up of a few blocks of Soviet-style apartment buildings, some small brick houses, a commissary that kept us in American and European cereal and bootleg VHS tapes of American TV shows, and a pub that served Turkish Efes beer and the most amazingly wonderful greasy-as-hell pizza I’ve ever eaten.
There was also a “library” of sorts: a small storage room in the basement of one of the buildings, filled with paperbacks and book club editions of pop novels and such. It never occurred to me, until this moment, to wonder where the books came from; I guess they were just donated by various people working on the projects over the five years or so they were there.
I was a bibliophile, even at nine years old. I learned to read rather astonishingly early — my mother says I was reading signs aloud at the age of about eighteen months — and I’ve been a speed-reader my entire life. By the time I ended up in Turkey, I was already reading at least at a high school level. I devoured books, and still do to this day (one of the many things I have in common with my wife). By the time I discovered our compound’s little library, I had probably already read all of the books I’d brought with me from America, as well as the Asterix The Gaul comics my grandparents had picked up for me in Istanbul.
So I was eager to find something new in the maybe half-dozen shelves of the library. But most of it was Harlequin-style romance, a few technical engineering manuals, Harold Robbins and Stephen King, whom I was terrified of. (It took me at least a year or two after returning from Turkey to get into Big Steve’s stuff.) Nothing that looked really interesting to me.
And then I found a small Pan Books paperback, well-worn already, with a picture of a little green grinning sphere on the cover giving the reader a raspberry, and a giant hand with a thumb on it. The title was The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. The author was Douglas Adams.
I picked it up, sat down on the floor of the library, and began reading. When I got to the sentence “The ships hung in the air in much the way that bricks don’t,” I was absolutely hooked…and I have been ever since.
Fast-forward many years, to May 11, 2001, ten years ago to the day. I was living in Seattle at the time, in the middle of, shall we say, difficult circumstances. I turned on my computer, logged on to Yahoo! News, and saw the headline: “Author Douglas Adams dies”. The article said that Adams had died while exercising at his home in Santa Barbara. He was exactly two months past his forty-ninth birthday.
I went outside, and I sat on the little concrete stoop of the house I was living in, and I cried. I cried as if a close friend had died, despite the fact that I never met Douglas Adams and only had one very brief email correspondence with him. (It consisted of me asking to interview him for a magazine and him promising to let me do so once the novel he was working on, The Salmon Of Doubt, was finished, which he expected to be very soon. That was 1996. He still hadn’t finished it at the time of his death. That was, as I understand it, par for the course for Adams.)
In many ways, Adams was responsible for making me who I am today. I found his work at an extremely pivotal moment in my mental development, when the world was just beginning to really open up for me. Something in me responded instantly to his particular type of existential absurdism, even at the tender age of nine. I was a terribly geeky kid, obsessed with physics and astronomy and computers, and the worlds of Arthur Dent and Dirk Gently were the kind of worlds I wanted so desperately to live in — worlds where particle physics formed the basis of all the best parties. Anyone who knows me and knows his work can probably guess that the foundation of my sense of humor lies in Adams’s work. Adams opened me up to a whole world of new ideas — Monty Python, P.G. Wodehouse, Doctor Who. (I even forgive him for his occasional digs at Rolling Stones fans.)
By all accounts, Douglas Adams was a kind, funny, excitable, garrulous and very large man who seemed incapable of ignoring the wonder of the world he found himself in. His intellectual curiosity — and ability to always place even the most monumental of events, ideas and scientific theories into a very silly frame — has been an inspiration to me my entire life. Though I never met him, I miss him terribly — I miss his voice — and I am envious of those lucky people who got to know him and have him in their lives.
Man, I wanted to be Ford Prefect so bad. I used to throw myself at the ground, trying to miss.
It never worked. But I still keep trying.