Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Douglas Adams & the role of the novel VS science

I am currently reading the biography of Douglas Adams "Wish you were here". The style, sillyness and creative reach of his writing inspires me to write, and encourages me to see that the world is really full of amazing things and that anything is game for writing about. Right now though I want focus on a quote I just discovered in the biography, where Douglas Adams is describing how he was reading more science than novels:

Wish You Were Here by Nick Webb"I think the role of the novel has changed a little bit. In the ninteenth century, the novel was where you went to get your serious reflections and questionings about life. You'd go to Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Nowadays, of course, you know the scientists actually tell much more about such issues than you would ever get from novelists. So I think that for the real solid red meat of what I read I go to science books, and read some novels for light relief." (From the 1997 Channel 4 documentary Break the Science Barrier with Richard Dawkins)
This is an intriguing quote for a few reasons:
- I don't really read science at all! It takes a great documentary to hook me into a new discovery or observation of the world before I really "get it". This is partly a personality thing (it's fine to be more fiction/art-focused) and partly perhaps a wrong way of relating to the world on my part - I sort of unconsciously assume the best things are going to be the fictional stories out there, the people I can meet, and the amazing art, film and music, rather than the stories of what is really unfolding in nature that are, in a sense, just waiting for us to discover them. But if science is really leading, perhaps that's what I should be reading?
- Secondly, I think that the quote doesn't account for people whose serious questions & reflections are not sparked by science but by other things. I think society has splintered into lots of interest groups in some ways. Celebrity is as important as science in UK culture right now, something that Douglas might has satirized, and yet others use celebrity to champion worthwhile causes. And for many people the serious issues, the stuff of life, centre around the things their mates are going through, but I guess that has always been the case long before "the novel" came along.
File:The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, english.svg- Thirdly, don't many good novels today provoke us to real reflection? (I think there are some.) If not, is it because we are generally less serious thinkers than nineteenth-century people, perhaps desensitized to some stuff that used to horrify, and so too accepting, non-commital to taking a point of view, instead making things trivial and manageable and "entertainment"? While I love entertainment culture, sometimes it is just a lure for us, enabling us to duck out of doing something constructive.
- Fourth, I love that Douglas Adams was a writer who loved both literature and science. Great to have thinkers that stretch in both directions!

What are your thoughts on all this?

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