Banned Books Week 2013

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Being a Banned Book

Y’all know about Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, right? Hapless human Arthur Dent gets dragged all over several universes and time periods after watching Earth get destroyed to make room for a hyperspatial express route. His best friend, Ford Prefect, is an alien with a nearly unpronounceable name who writes planetary travel articles for said Book. The pair wander around, get into trouble, almost die multiple times, murder a whale and a bowl of petunias, steal a spaceship with an Infinite Improbability Drive, and make sandwiches.

Adams came up with the original idea while lying in a field, drunk, staring up at the stars and wondering if anyone had ever written a Hitchhiker’s Guide to Europe but for space. As it turns out, no one had, so he did. And it was glorious.

Here’s a tidbit for your next pub quiz: H2G2 was banned at one school in Canada for using the word “whore.” As in Eccentrica Gallumbits, the Triple-Breasted Whore of Eroticon Six. Yep, that’s it. That’s really it. As a person who thrives on controversy and poking the bear in the zoo, I find this rather pathetic. There are so many better reasons to toss a book in literary jail than saying “whore” once in a 250 page book. And of all the words to find offensive, that has got to be the least of them. Why even be bothered by that word? Is it the profession itself that is offensive, or the specific word? I guess I’m mostly disappointed that the reasoning is so lackluster because the book is so important to me. It’s no exaggeration to say the H2G2 5-book trilogy (And Another Thing… doesn’t count) changed my life. There are those few milestones in everyone’s life, and not surprisingly, most of my milestones have involved controversial topics or creators. I can’t talk about H2G2 and Banned Books Week without talking about how influential the books and the author were in my personal evolution. This is about to get long-winded and a bit rambly, so bear with me.

There are five big moments where my life took a left turn, but I’m only going to deal with the three most relevant to the topic at hand. The first time everything changed was with an accidental purchase of Nine Inch Nails’ The Fragile when I was 16. Up to that point I only listened to radio-friendly pop, my mother’s favorite gospel radio station, and Christian “rock,” courtesy of my strict religious upbringing. That day, with Trent Reznor’s guidance, I fell in love with music that meant something, music that inspired emotion and reaction. It shattered my entire perception of what music was and what it could do. Nowadays, I’ll listen to just about anything, but strongly prefer music that speaks to my soul, music that sounds like poetry, music that makes something new out of the world.

I’ve written repeatedly during my tenure at Tor.com how Doctor Who (specifically, the barfight/makeout scene in first episode of the second season of Torchwood), coupled with my simultaneously discovered affection for Neil Gaiman (an author who has not actually been banned but who is frequently challenged, and, incidentally enough, who coined the term “H2G2”), pushed me down an SFF path from which I have never looked back. My Torchwood/Doctor Who experience and Neil Gaiman lead me to discover Tor.com in its early-ish days, which lead me to getting hired as a blogger, which brings us to this very post.

In between NIN and Who was a polite, clever, geeky Englishman named Douglas Noel Adams. Adams turned up in my early 20s when I was going through a series of poor life choices. An ex-boyfriend introduced me to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but I didn’t read the series until months later when I was trapped on a 7 hour bus ride from London to Newquay with my CDs packed in storage. The first book broke me apart, and the rest of Adams’ oeuvre did it again and again. Up till then I’d only really read the Classics and the Bible, so this was quite the step outside my comfort zone. Adams was one of those writers who seemed to rework the English language into something new and wholly unique. The way he formed jokes, sentences, words, concepts, philosophies, all of it was completely unknown to me. More than unknown; before him I didn’t even know such things were even possible. It was like suddenly discovering purple had a taste. Mind = blown.

I grew up in a heavily religious environment. From 6 to 16 I was part of a fundamentalist branch of Christianity that disallowed questioning the Word of God and demanded total adherence to doctrine. Being the kind of person who dislikes being told what to do and hates hypocrisy, it’s no surprise I had issues with it. I got in trouble once for ordering bacon—verboten!—at Denny’s during a fieldtrip. I dyed my hair and pierced my ears like, well, like whores did, according to my school. In high school I was unceremoniously kicked out of Sabbath School for making the other kids uncomfortable because I asked too many questions and refused to accept “The Lord works in mysterious ways” as a valid answer.

By the time Douglas Adams came into my life, I had already stopped attending church and had veered into vague agnosticism. It was he—plus several college classes in evolutionary theory and paleoanthropology—who pushed me over the edge to full on atheism. (None of this is to say religion is wrong and atheism is right. Jesus, Buddha, Anansi, Frejya, Ch’aska Qoyllur, Xenu, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, whatever. I could care less what you believe as long as you’re a decent person.)

My worldview today is almost entirely founded on the principles espoused by Adams. My personal philosophy can basically be summed up with the answer to life, the universe, and everything. I’ll let Bill Bryson explain in his (marvellous) book A Short History of Nearly Everything:

…for you to be here now trillions of drifting atoms had somehow to assemble in an intricate and curiously obliging manner to create you. It’s an arrangement so specialized and particular that it has never been tried before and will only exist this once…Not only have you been lucky enough to be attached since time immemorial to a favoured evolutionary line, but you have also been extremely—make that miraculously—fortunate in your personal ancestry. Consider the fact that for 3.8 billion years…Not one of your pertinent ancestors was squashed, devoured, drowned, starved, stuck fast, untimely wounded, or otherwise deflected from its life’s quest of delivering a tiny charge of genetic material to the right partner at the right moment to perpetuate the only possible sequence of hereditary combinations that could result—eventually, astoundingly, and all too briefly—in you.

Douglas Adams taught me that in a simpler, more enjoyably SF way: What do you get when you multiply 6 by 9? 42. Not 54. 54 makes logical sense; 42 doesn’t. It’s a meaningless answer to a meaningless question. He even came up with “42” on a meaningless whim: “42 is a nice number that you can take home and introduce to your family.” The point is that there is no point. You can apply all the logic and rules and order you want, but at the end of the day Adams and I believe you are on this planet out of random happenstance.

For me, believing there’s no one watching out for us is more profound than believing someone is. It’s the difference between doing good because you want daddy to give you a cookie and doing good because it’s the right thing to do. I only get one go-round, and it’s my responsibility as a member of the most intelligent species on this planet to leave it in better shape than when I arrived. I didn’t have to be here, and the fact that I have lasted as long as I have is a testament to the miracle of life rather than because someone up there likes me. Again, I’m not trying to convert or condemn those who believe differently. What works for me may not work for you, but as long as we all follow Wheaton’s Law of Don’t Be A Dick, it’s all good in my book.

This is all a very roundabout way of saying how surprised I was that H2G2 was banned for one measly instance of a barely offensive word rather than its radical philosophical and theological stances. Adams never shied away from his deeply held ideas on evolution and atheism. Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy isn’t exactly an evolutionist manifesto or anything, but it is a window to another way of comprehending the world. For me, it was a crack of light in a pitch black basement, something to guide my escape from a life I was never happy in. For others it’s just a damn fine book, entertaining, witty, and funny as all getout. And, for some particularly puritanical Canadians, it’s a profane, debasing, offensive piece of filth that should be stricken from all shelves and burned à la Fahrenheit 451.

Truth be told, that makes me love Douglas Adams even more.

Banned Books Week 2013 is being celebrated from Sept. 22 to the 28; further information on Banned and Frequently Challenged Books is available from the American Library Association.


Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

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