Study Guide

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Tough-o-Meter

By Douglas Adams

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(5) Tree Line

Why is such a funny book so hard? We've broken down the reasons:

(1) It's British. No, seriously. If you have a British edition (for some reason) and are not British (for some reason), then you will need to deal with British spelling, like "colour" instead of "color." Because of the overabundance of vowels, Brits like to use an extra "u" in some words. Even if you have an American version, there's a certain "tone" that might be hard to get into. That's the dry British humor.

(2) It's old. Sure, 1979 wasn't so long ago (we tell ourselves, while we sit in our rocking-chairs), but it's not yesterday. So when Adams makes a couple of jokes about how cool digital watches are, it might seem like a weird joke to make, but here's the key: the first digital watch was only made in the 1970s and was hideously expensive, so they are still pretty new in 1979. Also, there's no internet, the Cold War with Russia is still on, and no one has ever played Angry Birds.

(3) Adams sometimes writes long, multi-phrase sentences. For instance: "On Wednesday night it had rained very heavily, the lane was wet and muddy, but the Thursday morning sun was bright and clear as it shone on Arthur Dent's house for what was to be the last time" (1.3). That sentence could easily be broken up into a few sentences. It's not exactly a run-on sentence, but it's getting a little runny.

Adams could have written, "On Wednesday night it had rained very heavily. The lane was wet and muddy. But the Thursday morning sun was bright and clear as it shone on Arthur Dent's house. It was to be the last time." But by writing all of that in one sentence, he makes us rush on to the final joke in the sentence: sure, the world is going on as if everything is normal—Wednesday, Thursday, rain, mud, sun—but the end is about to come, for the house at least. The joke here is that the most important information—that Arthur's house is about to be demolished—is the last thing that we hear. He wants us to really get that final, shocking joke. Which brings us to…

(4) It's totally weird. If you were reading a normal, non-funny book, sentences would start normally and end up in normal places. But Adams's sentences often surprise because they don't start and end normally. One of our favorite examples: "The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don't" (3.65). We'll say more about that in the "Writing Style" section, but for now, let's just notice that it's weird to end a sentence by describing that something isn't like the way something else isn't.

Douglas Adams, you are hard sometimes, but we still love you.

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