Book review: 42: Douglas Adams’ Amazingly Accurate Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything by Peter Gill (Beautiful Books, 2011)
In The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy it was revealed by Douglas Adams that the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything is … forty two.
Over the ten years since his early death the genius that created the joke has maintained Douglas Adams’ reputation as one of the greats of English humour and The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the world’s bestselling humorous book. Now fairly detailed new research reveals the truth behind the seemingly unstoppable success of the world’s funniest number – Forty two elbowed past a whole bunch of other numbers queuing hopefully at the counter on the day the world’s most interesting facts were dished out.
So, in sport, the most famous dog in English football, and the poster of a girl forgetfully playing tennis without any knickers, are now revealed to be connected, extremely loosely, by Forty two. In music, a special symmetry exists if there is anyone who is particularly fond of Mozart and Michael Jackson and Mungo Jerry. And there are amazing world records: for example the first building with a lift taking people up to the forty-second floor was also the first building with a forty-second floor; while in history the number segues us without any effort at all from The Star Spangled Banner to Apollo 13 and the Statue of Liberty.
Stephen Fry tantalised fans by saying it was ‘completely obvious’ in answer to the long-standing mystery of ‘Why Forty two?’ Douglas ADams spoke obliquely of the integer’s inherent comic soul. Now Peter Gill invites readers to kick back and read, for the first time, the fascinating history behind Douglas Adams’ discovery of the true significance of Forty two.
I first heard about this book over Twitter, and looking it up, I went “oooh!” and ordered it. The book is basically what it says on the back (above): a collection of facts that happen to be related to the number 42. Some quite loosely, such as “and that’s the distance between Rome and New York 42 times!” or something to that ilk.
The number 42 is fascinating, and it keeps cropping up everywhere when you least expect it. That’s what I’ve noticed over the years. Obviously, Peter Gill has noticed the same thing, but he’s decided to go looking for facts and figures and putting them together in a book. Some are familiar, such as Elvis was 42 when he died and it was the number of Mulder’s apartment in The X-Files. Others are more surprising. And others will of course be missing.
To begin with, I was disappointed. After all, it’s just a book of facts that happen to be more or less loosely connected with the number forty-two. Whoop-tee-doo. I was expecting it to more be a book about, you know, like the title says: Douglas Adams’ Amazingly Accurate Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything. A way of explaining how it could be the Answer, more Indiana Jones than Trivial Pursuit. Instead, it’s just a book of facts. However, toward the end, it goes into how Douglas Adams came to choose the number (there have been various explanations given over the years, but it mainly boils down to that it was a random number, kind of humdrum yet still kind of funny). And I enjoyed that. I also enjoyed the facts, just … well, they were facts, not a “and here’s why this nicely inconspicuous number could indeed be the Answer we’ve been looking for”.
So I’m a bit undecided. It’s an interesting book listing an amazing number of facts stemming from one integer. The big plus, a major plus, of the book is how it’s written. It’s funny. It’s not too far off something Douglas Adams himself could have written, and that in itself is something I value. This is Peter Gill’s first book, and I hope there’s more writing in him. Perhaps not funny factoid books but rather something else, be it fact or fiction, but I really think it could work. Keep going and keep up the good work!
3.5 towels out of 5, I reckon. 4 if it’s a present to a Hitchhiker’s fan or just for a laugh, 2 if you got it because you wanted to know more about the number 42.
2011 marks the 10th anniversary of the death of British comedian, author, genius, procrastinator and technology geek Douglas Adams, which I think is something worth commemorating and will therefore be posting several posts related to him and his works spread over the year. Today’s date is 4/2, if using middle endian date notation, which, as this very book points out, “is fashionable in the USA and almost nowhere else in the world.”