Archive for April 9th, 2015

April 9, 2015

A Terry Pratchett post

I thought I wasn’t going to do a Terry Pratchett column (as I learnt after Leonard Nimoy died last month, I’m not good at talking about why certain public figures meant a lot to me) but then realised I couldn’t not say something.

So, this.

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At some point in my mid-teens a friend from school lent me a copy of something called The Light Fantastic, by someone called Terry Pratchett. It was the sequel to a book neither of us had read, which was a pity, but there was enough in there that we recognised to make this book, both a perpetuation and a parody of fantasy tropes, fun. I borrowed the book and loved it, she moved to another school, then another city, and we lost touch for years before Facebook made communication possible again, I kept the book. I found that there were others.kirby discworld

If parodying fantasy tropes had been the only purpose of the books, I suspect the joke would have worn thin very quickly (and reading the early books as an adult, I can see that it often did). But the Discworld books widened and deepened into something larger and deeper; while never losing the sense that a good portion of a book could be dedicated to the fulfilment of a terrible pun and that that was as noble a goal as any. In the first few years I read them in the order that I found them in, skipping back and forth in an already-chaotic timeline and across British and American editions. When I’d read all that had been published I moved on to making sure I had a complete set in the editions with the nicer covers (if there was a Josh Kirby cover, that was the one I wanted; a British edition was always preferable to an American one). As I caught up, I began collecting the books in hardback, as they came out, which was usually (serendipitously!) around my birthday. Friends in other countries would pick them up if they were delayed in India, or stood in line to get them signed. For years now I’ve associated the whole process of growing older with the arrival of a new Terry Pratchett book—I’m not entirely sure how to do that, now that there will be no more.

When I found out that Pratchett had died last week, it was through friends whom I’d badgered into reading him in college, messaging me to ask if I knew and to thank me for introducing his work to them.  I dithered over emailing my old friend and expressing the same sort of gratitude–I’m not sure “thanks for letting me steal your book fifteen years ago” is something I can articulate very well to someone who is now almost a stranger. But I am, deeply, grateful.

And I’m grateful to Pratchett, and to the books (particularly the Discworld books) themselves. For a world in which the insides of people’s heads (our second and third thoughts as well as our first) are important. For Granny Weatherwax’s ventures into Headology; for Sam Vimes who creates a policeman in his own subconscious to keep a check on his anger*.

I suggest above that the earliest books in the series are slight parodies, but they were still enormously important to me. You can’t think about why things are the way they are until you notice that they’re that way in the first place; Pratchett is one of a few writers who taught me how to read, and read critically. Eventually I’d turn that gaze on his own books—he gave me the tools to be dissatisfied with his work. I’m grateful for that as well.

But most of all I’m grateful for how kind the books are. One of the reasons that I find the books’ social commentary occasionally unsatisfying is that some things simply can’t be done nicely, however strong the author’s feelings or sharp his commentary. But kindness is safe, and warm and human (almost everyone’s human in Pratchett). Earlier this year, after a death in the family (not, alas, a Death in the family, though Pratchett’s Death might be the most human of all) I spent a couple of days in my parents’ house just reading Discworld books under a blanket.

I might need to do that again this week.

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*Vimes remains my favourite Discworld character, even though the correct answer to that question is Granny Weatherwax, precisely because of that anger. It has been vital to me–and it was only in the weeks following the author’s death that I realised how many people I know for whom this is true.