Monday, December 3, 2012

Douglas' Last Salmon

If you ever want to know exactly how popular something is, step into a middle school classroom and ask them if they know what X is (X being the thing you want to know is popular or not). Well, maybe a high school class would be better, I'm not sure as I haven't spent any time in a high school classroom in a while. I am, however, in middle school classes several days a week. It is always interesting to find out what they have and (mostly) have not heard of. It's kind of bubble popping at times.

Things the middle schoolers I work with know about:

  • Star Wars -- They've all heard about it and know the gist of the story, but a surprising number have never seen it (interestingly enough, this is not true of the kids my daughter's age, who have almost all seen it (and love it (all of them))).
  • Harry Potter -- They all know what Harry Potter is, but, mostly, they have not read the books. Most of them have not seen all of the movies, either.
  • Lord of the Rings -- Ask them who Tolkien is, and you'll get blank looks, but say "Lord of the Rings" and the response is "oh! I love Lord of the Rings!"
  • Hunger Games -- They're all over that. All of them.
  • Twilight -- Mostly, they despise it. They all know what it is, and a few like it, but the voices of those that hate it drown out any people that might speak up in its favor.
  • Dr. Who -- Of popular things, this has the most ardent adherents. If they've seen it, they love it. If they haven't seen it, they want to.
  • Buffy, the Vampire Slayer -- Who?
  • Joss Whedon -- Who?
  • The Avengers -- Oh, that was awesome!
There are a couple of book series that a lot of them really like that I need to write down the names of so that I can check them out. Not surprisingly, though, they have no clue about some of the classics, books I think of as fundamental. Even things like Frankenstein and Jekyll & Hyde and Dracula that you would think middle schoolers would know about will cause blank looks and comments like, "I think my dad mentioned that once." They've heard of Dickens, but that's about it.

Yeah, it can be difficult to have a discussion about literature when the students don't know anything about it.

The thing about all of this is that it can really be humbling in a certain sense. It reminds me that some of the things, some of the names, I think of as essential are, from any realistic standpoint, almost unheard of to the rest of the world. Names like Neil Gaiman. Although, now, I have several of them interested in The Graveyard Book. And names like Douglas Adams. A few had heard of Hitchhikers', but Douglas Adams was another of those vacant look names.

But it's not just them. It's everyone. It takes a lot to break into cultural awareness, and, really, people like Gaiman and Adams and Martin stop shy of being names that any random person off the street is likely to know.

All of that being said, I just finished The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time by Douglas Adams. I really enjoyed the book, but, honestly, if you're not a fan of Adams, you don't need to and probably shouldn't read this book. That means that most people have no business giving it a second glance. That's kind of a weird feeling knowing that.

On top of everything else, it's not even a complete work. Salmon was the last project Adams was working on when he died, and he hadn't even decided what kind of story it was yet. What that means is that he'd started it as his next Dirk Gently novel, but, as he wrote it, he decided it was really a Hitchhiker book, and he's never gotten around to figuring out what he was going to do with it. The parts with Gently flow well and are interesting, but they have these other bits thrown it that make you feel like you're reading more than one work, which, in fact, you are.

But it's not really the Salmon stuff that's so great about this book. It's full of essays, articles, and speeches he gave, and that stuff is immensely interesting. The book is worth it for that stuff. IF you are a fan of Adams. If you're not, I have a hard time thinking you'd care.

The one thing it did do is make me want to go find my Dirk Gently novels and finally get around to reading them. I'm gonna have to do that soon... if I can ever get caught up on this teetering pile of books by my bed.

Now to get back to expanding the horizons of these kids...


  1. Adams was great, a real "moment" for me when I was young. It sent me looking for other books like it and I wound up with Heinlen in my hands and many other greats.

    I remember trying to share books and films that were important to me with my kids when they were at this age. It hurt a bit when they didn't experience the same delight that I did. But the entire culture has changed. I feel old now and I'm going to cry!

  2. Wonder if they know Narnia or C.S. Lewis?
    Not an Adams fan, but his humor just doesn't resonate with me.
    I'd start making a list of things to ask those kids. Finding out what they did and didn't know would be both fun and depressing.

  3. Getting my boy to read anything is like pulling teeth. Sounds like fun, though, hitting the classroom and talking to kids about literature.

  4. That makes me feel great about public education. I have one of the Hitchhiker stories that I think came from that book in the big leatherbound edition of all four Hitchhiker books I have. I have the two Gently ones together too. Those were pretty good.

  5. They need way more books. I mean, come ON. They haven't heard of Frankenstein, a story that's going on 150 years old and countless incarnation? Maybe (just maybe) I can understand not recognizing Tolkien, but they haven't read Harry Potter? It makes me think they haven't read anything at all and that just makes me sad.

  6. Anne: Fortunately, my kids have (mostly) turned out to be as much as a geek as I am and have liked the stuff I've exposed them to. It's been a really great thing.

    Alex: Narnia, yes. I forgot to list that one! Lewis, no. No idea who he was at all.

    Cathy: It is fun! Except for when they start talking about books I've never heard of. :/

    PT: We have the big leather Hitchhiker's.
    They don't teach any of the same stuff anymore. I think it's partly budgetary, because they don't even have literature books!

    Jeanne: The ones in my creative writing class do read and most of them read a lot. They just read stuff specifically aimed at them and not worth looking at (on the whole) if you're older than 13. That's the part that makes me sad, that literature dumbs down, now, instead of elevating.

  7. I think Salmon could easily make someone into a fan. But maybe that's just me, although I did read it after his other books, so maybe just wishful thinking?

  8. Tony: I think people who haven't read his other work would be left wondering what was going on.