The Salmon of Doubt
As I’ve mentioned previously, I’ve been on a bit of a Douglas Adams kick. So I picked up The Salmon of Doubt at the VPL*. TSofD is a compilation of a variety of writings that were put together after Adams’s death in 2001, including the unfinished novel that he was working on at the time of his death.
I’ve compiled my preferred quotations from this book, grouped by topic:
Adams refers to himself as a “radical atheist,” because he was sick of people saying, “Don’t you mean you are an agnostic?” I like this term, “radical atheist” and am thinking of adopting it myself.
- “I find the whole business of religion profoundly interesting. But it does mystify me that otherwise intelligent people take it seriously” (p. xxvii)
- “In England, we seem to have drifted from vague, wishy-washy Anglicanism to vague, wishy-washy Agnosticism — both of which I think betoken a desire not to have to think about things too much.” (“Interview, American Atheists”, p. 96)
- on being an atheist rather than an agnostic: “People will then often say, “But surely it’s better to remain an Agnostic just in case?” This, to me, suggests such a level of silliness and muddle that I usually edge out of the conversation rather than get sucked into it. (If it turns out that I’ve been wrong all along, and there is in fact a god, and if it further turned out that this kind of legalistic, cross-your-fingers-behind-your-back, Clintonian hair splitting impressed him, then I think I would choose not to workship him anyway).” (“Interview, American Atheists”, p. 96)
- “I don’t accept the currently fashionable assertion that any view is automatically as worthy of respect as any equal and opposite view.” (“Interview, American Atheists”, p. 97) – can anyone say “intelligent design”? or “intelligent falling“…
- “God used to be the best explanation we’d got, and we’ve now got vastly better ones.” (“Interview, American Atheists”, p. 97)
- “I’d take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance anyday.” (“Interview, American Atheists”, p. 99) – put another way (and to quote John Stuart Mill): “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”
- written in the Epilogue about Adams: “To illustrate the vain conceit that the universe must be somehow preordained for us, because we are so well suited to live in it, he mimed a wonderfully funny imitation of a puddle of water, fitting itself snugly into a depression in the ground, the depression uncannily being the same shape as the puddle.” (“Epilogue,” p. 289)
- “Incidentally, am I alone in finding the expression “it turns out” to be incredibly useful? It allows you to make swift, succint and authoritative connections between otherwise randomly unconnected statements without the trouble of explaining what your source or authority actually is. It’s great… because it suggests not only that whatever flimsy bit of urban mythology you are passing on is actually based on brand new, ground breaking research, but that it is research in which you yourself were intimately involved. But again, with no actual authority anywhere in sight.” (p. 27) – I tend to use the words “in fact” to this same end… perhaps I should incorporate “it turns out” into my vocabulary to add some variety.
- “The perennial movie, which has been about to be made for about 20 years and is even more about to made now.” (“April 5, 2000 interview”, p. 283)
- on his new ideas: “Can I do them all in the rest of my career, given the speed at which they are arriving at the moment?” (“April 5, 2000 interview”, p. 284) – this made me sad, because he surely did not get to capture all these ideas before his death in 2001; who knows what strokes of brillance were lost along with Adams?
- “At the end of all this being-determined-to-be-a-jack-of-a-trades, I think I’m better off just sitting down and putting a hundred thousand words in cunning order…. slowly and painfully.” (“April 5, 2000 interview”, p. 287)
- on computer cables: “Dickens didn’t have to crawl around under his desk trying to match plugs. You look at the sheer yardage of Dickens’s output on a shelf and you konw he never had to match plugs.” (“Frank the Vandal,” p. 90) – this had me laughing right out loud. Mostly because I’m often found crawling around under my desk trying to match plugs. I’m sure I could have finished my PhD at least a year earlier if I didn’t have to match plugs.
- “‘personal’ computers (a misleading term as applied to almost any machine we’ve seen so far).” (“Build It and We Will Come,” p. 91)
- “Then, as our ability to manipulate numbers with these machines became more sophisticated, we wondered what might happen if we made the numbers stand for something else, like for instance, the letters of the alphabet. Bingo! An extraordinary, world changing breakthrough! We realized we had been myopically shortsighted to think that this thing was just an adding machine. It was something far more exciting. It was a typewriter!” (“BI & WWC,” pp. 91-2)
- “There is a very simple principle to the making of tea, and it’s this — to get the proper flavour of tea, the water has to be boilING (not boilED) when it hits the tea leaves. (“Tea,” p. 68) – I’ve been saying this for years, so it was nice to see it confirmed by an Englishman.
- “The socially correct way of pouring tea is to put the milk in after the tea. Social correctness has traditionally had nothing whatever to do with reason, logic or physics.” (“Tea,” p. 69)
- “Everybody lies to people with clipboards.” (“BI & WWC,” p. 93)
- “Present someone with a questionnaire clipboard and they lie. A friend of mine once had a job preparing a questionnaire for people to fill in on the web. He said the information they got back was enormously heartening about the state of the world. For instance, did you konw that almost 90% of the population are CEOs of their own companies and earn over a million dollars a year?” (p. 125)
- “Time travel? I believe there are people regularly travelling back from the future and interfering with our lives on a daily basis. The evidence is all around us. I’m talking about how every time we make an insurance claim we discover that somehow mysteriously the exact thing we’re claiming is now precisely excluded from our policy.” (“Time Travel,” p. 121)
- “… big corporations don’t particularly like to hear about protecting endangered wildlife. You lose a lot of money to endangered wildlife.” (“April 5, 2000 interview”, p. 285)
From the Unfinished Manuscript of The Salmon of Doubt:
- “Even he, to whom most things that most people would think were pretty smart were pretty dumb, thought it was pretty smart.” (p. 205)
- “He didn’t like beautiful women. They upset him with their grace, their charm, the utter loveliness and their complete refusal to go out to dinner with him.” (p. 210)
- “He was constantly reminded of how startingly different a place the world was when viewed from a point only three feet to the left.” (p. 233)
- “He had no money. None of his own at least. He had some of the bank’s money, but how much he had no idea.” (p. 228)
- “It seemed to him for a moment that the [unopened bank statements] were vibrating slightly, and even that the whole of space and time was beginning to revolve slowly around them and get sucked into the event horizon, but he was probably imagining it.” (p. 228) – I know someone like this. Some people, actually.
- “The actual building was old and dilapitated and remained standing more out of habit than from any inherent structural integrity…” – I know a place like this.
- “...syphilitic idiocy and blitheringness..” (p. 260) – this might be the best expression I’ve ever heard… I can think of a choice few people who I would use this to describe
Now, I’m pretty sure that I had more things from this book that I wanted to record for posterity. They are probably scrawled on a scrap of a napkin that is stuffed in the pocket of some pair of pants I haven’t worn in ages, or was accidentally thrown away. If I ever do find them, I’ll add them later.
Adams, Douglas. The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time. London: Macmillan, 2002.