The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

I am reading the Telegraph’s “100 novels everyone should read” list. The Lord of the Rings is number 100. You can follow my progress on the twitter hashtag #100novels.

This review will contain spoilers.

The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

I can’t think of anyone I know who has not come across this classic story. They may have listened to the original radio show, read the Douglas Adams books, or watched the movie – or they may have simply absorbed the references: 42, don’t panic, carry a towel and Earth: Mostly harmless.

In my own case, I first read the book as a teenager. At the time I consistently ransacked my Dad’s bookshelves, which luckily were vast and highly eclectic. I picked books mainly on the title, and these books, all lined up in a row, had some great titles. With no idea what to expect, the actual book was a shock. I had literally never come across something like it – Monty Python, Terry Pratchett and other zany, slightly trippy comedy was to come later.

Like every teenager, I adored it. I even listened to the radio show, on tape, at a later date. The jokes passed into my common language, 42 became the default answer to every question (with knowing sniggers from those who understood, and bewilderment from those who didn’t. Over time, however, everyone knew what it meant.)

It’s hard to where to start reviewing a classic book like this. I was a little bit afraid of going back to it. Would it have dated? Would it no longer be funny? Would the fact it has become part of our common memory, burnished and surrounded by a positive glow of nostalgia, mean the original came off a bit – well, hackneyed? Would the fact I knew the jokes ahead of time mean they fell flat on delivery?

I am pleased to report that the first book still made me laugh out loud. The dialogue is acerbic and brilliant, the characters endlessly funny and yet oddly sympathetic, and Trillian a remarkably well-rounded and competent female character – something I value a lot more now than I did as a teenager.

Some of it reeks of the time period it was written. The description of the actual Hitchhikers Guide will remind you eerily of a kindle, the cost of a pint is laughably low, and the slang is pretty much jazz slang with some syllables changed around. Other parts are still woefully accurate: the tedious and bloody-minded bureaucracy of local government, and pretty much everything about human nature.

Parts of the book are surprisingly progressive. In a world where we still have Creationists, people arguing against abortion, and Tories in power, the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy feels practically transgressive. In many ways, we have gone backwards.

Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?

Having said that, for a book that has made such a huge impression it feels oddly light. This is not the savage dismantling of society, nor does it resemble the philosophical musings of someone like Terry Pratchett. It’s all fairly good natured, and there’s an inherent faith that humans will keep bumbling along somehow… even if  (almost) all of them get bulldozed to death at the start of the first book. You finish with a happy smile, and a reminder of all those iconic quotes – but not much else.

Should we expect more of our satiric comedy? I don’t know. Sometimes it is nice to have a light, fun read. I stormed through the first book in less than an evening and felt the better for it. And yet, given how highly regarded it is, and how much impact it had on me as a teenager, I expected something a bit more lasting, something with a bit more weight.

Please weigh in below or give me a shout on twitter @suziehunt: did Hitchhikers have an impact on you?

The next book on the list is A Thousand and One Nights, also known as Arabian Nights. Look out for that review coming soon!


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