The Salmon of Doubt (Book Review)


I just finished reading The Salmon of Doubt, a collection of essays and articles and whatnots written by Douglas Adams. (He's the genius behind The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, among other things.)

Short review: mostly good.

The book was a gift from one (two?) of my favorite friends, and I absolutely love Douglas Adams. That said, I really wanted to love every part of this book. For the most part, I suppose I did. The beginning was filled with tidbits about Douglas Adams' life and interests. It reminded me a bit of the beginning of Stephen King's On Writing. The end held a few wonderful short stories along with an unfinished draft of one of Adams' next projects. That part was nothing short of delightful. Something about his writing makes me glad to be alive. He was so clever and so funny and so full of surprising ways to say things. I couldn't bother stopping to jot down my favorite quotes, but I did take photographs on my phone and have transcribed and assembled the best bits below.

But before I get back to the happy part, I feel compelled to comment that the middle portion was a bit of a chore to get through. At times, it was even heartbreaking. Some pieces were entertaining enough, as they related to Douglas Adams' penchant for technology. He wrote about his first time using a hand-held computer in the bathtub and his hope that, one day, he could walk into his office with his portable computer and have the contents automatically appear on his desktop computer. (Hello, Dropbox!) Not as riveting for me as his fiction, but it was an interesting glance into the life of someone I very much respect.

(Actually, reading a few of the essays reminded me of a secret fear I have: that after I die, the horrible things I've started writing or even finished writing will be dug up from old shoeboxes and scraped out of old floppy disks and stolen from my personal computers and published internationally in some sort of postmortem shame festival/museum.)

I suppose if the middle portion had been just that, I would have muddled through it and appreciated the whole book without comment. But there was an awful lot about Adams' atheism in that bit, and it left me with the impression that Adams found all Christians to be idiots. Finding out that this guy whose work I very much admire would've found me to be absolutely moronic? Maybe it's silly, but it made me really sad. It'd be like telling me that Kate Chopin only befriended people who used Comic Sans or that Dave Brubeck hated anyone who used semicolons. It's one thing for a personal idol to believe the polar opposite of what you do; it's another to find out that idol would've disliked you because of it.

Maybe I got bent out of shape for nothing, but . . . too late. The middle portion of the book left a bad taste in my mouth, and it's really a tribute to Douglas Adams' writing that his unfinished snippet of a novel was so good that it redeemed the rest of the material in The Salmon of Doubt for me.

So without further ado, here are a few of my favorite quotes:

Jane, who is much better at reading guide books than I am (I always read them on the way back to see what I missed, and it's often quite a shock), discovered something wonderful in the book she was reading. Did I know, she asked, that Brisbane was originally founded as a penal colony for convicts who committed new offences after they had arrived in Australia?

I spent a good half hour enjoying that single piece of information. It was wonderful. There we British sat, poor grey sodden creatures, huddling under our grey northern sky that seeped like a rancid dish cloth, busy sending those we wished to punish most severely to sit in bight sunlight on the coast of the Tasman Sea at the southern tip of the Great Barrier Reef and maybe do some surfing too. No wonder the Australians have a particular kind of smile that they reserve exclusively for use on the British.

It does sort of make you wonder. Was there a criminal mastermind secretly behind this plan? Or are British people just crazy? Also, "[seeping] like a rancid dish cloth" is a brilliant way to describe a sky.

My favourite piece of information is that Branwell Brontë, brother of Emily and Charlotte, died standing up leaning against a mantelpiece, in order to prove it could be done.

That is not quite true, in fact. My absolute favourite piece of information is the fact that young sloths are so inept that they frequently grab their own arms and legs instead of tree limbs, and fall out of trees.

I just retweeted that sloth fact within the last month. Great minds?

"Josh," said a voice in a kind of Swedish-Irish accent.

That is a delightfully impossible amount of accent to cram into one syllable.

He was immediately glad that he had decided to build in a brief period of mental preparation. Almost immediately number one, a large duvet of a woman, came around the corner . . .

I don't ever want to be fat, but if that's my destiny, please refer to me as a "large duvet of a woman."

Dirk had recently moved to this new office—new to him, that was; the actual building was old and dilapidated and remained standing more out of habit than from any inherent structural integrity . . .

I like the idea of buildings having habits.

The following morning the weather was so foul it hardly deserved the name, and Dirk decided to call it Stanley instead.

Stanley wasn't a good downpour. Nothing wrong with a good downpour for clearing the air. Stanley was the sort of thing you needed a good downpour to clear the air of. Stanley was muggy, close, and oppressive, like someone large and sweaty pressed up against you in a tube train. Stanley didn't rain, but every so often he dribbled on you.

Dirk stood outside in the Stanley.

See? Delightful. The writing is absolutely delightful. (No, you find another adjective.) That could have been a terribly boring and commonplace description of weather, but it is not. It is Stanley, and it is wonderful.