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Salon.com
MAY 25, 2012 8:21AM

Douglas Adams: A Man Who Really Knew Where His Towel Was

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Since 2001, today has been known in some circles as Towel Day, a tribute to the work of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy author Douglas Adams who died in May of that year at the much too young age of 49. The many adaptations of his work that have appeared in film, TV and radio since his death are a clear tribute to how beloved Adams and his work was by so many. Towel Day, which is inspired by a particularly amusing entry from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, is another particularly unique sign of that love.

A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value - you can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapours; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a mini raft down the slow heavy river Moth; wet it for use in hand-to- hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or to avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (a mindboggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can't see it, it can't see you - daft as a bush, but very ravenous); you can wave your towel in emergencies as a distress signal, and of course dry yourself off with it if it still seems to be clean enough.

More importantly, a towel has immense psychological value. For some reason, if a strag (strag: non-hitch hiker) discovers that a hitch hiker has his towel with him, he will automatically assume that he is also in possession of a toothbrush, face flannel, soap, tin of biscuits, flask, compass, map, ball of string, gnat spray, wet weather gear, space suit etc., etc. Furthermore, the strag will then happily lend the hitch hiker any of these or a dozen other items that the hitch hiker might accidentally have "lost". What the strag will think is that any man who can hitch the length and breadth of the galaxy, rough it, slum it, struggle against terrible odds, win through, and still knows where his towel is is clearly a man to be reckoned with.

Mostly Harmless, Adams’ final book in the Hitchhiker’s Guide… series, came out in 1992, the same year as the blockbuster romance The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller, and it probably only sold a small fraction of what Waller’s book did. However, it’s a safe bet that years from now new readers will be embracing Adams’ work while Waller and his ephemeral blockbuster will probably be answers to a trivia question at best. Whether those new fans will be reading Adams’ work in printed form or on an electronic device like the one the writer envisioned back in the late 1970s remains to be seen, but I’m hopeful they’ll all know where their towels are.

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