‘My Lord… what is Death like?’ called the old man tremulously.
‘When I have investigated it fully, I will let you know,’ came the faintest of modulations on the breeze.
‘Yes,’ murmured the Loremaster. A thought struck him. ‘During daylight, please,’ he added.
– Terry Pratchett, The Colour of Magic (1983)
A few weeks ago, when the news arrived that Terry Pratchett had died, I was, like many of his fans, deeply saddened, more than just another author I felt like I really knew Pratchett, it was as though I had lost a friend. Bizarre perhaps, given that I’m fairly new (and certainly late) to the Pratchett party. In fact I only began to read his books this year, and I can only tick off one so far: The Colour of Magic.
I didn’t know where to start, so I thought I’d start at the beginning – people had been telling me to read Pratchett for years, particularly (perhaps bizarrely) since I’ve started to study Shakespeare, so I thought I’d see what the fuss was about. I’ve just started The Light Fantastic but when I heard of Pratchett’s passing I’d only read one of his books, that’s it. So why did the death of an author whose work I was fairly unfamiliar with have such a profound impact?
Part of the sadness I think, for me, stemmed from the initial confusion of whether or not the news was true. I found out via Twitter and although it was announced poignantly in three final tweets from Pratchett’s account I think part of me was hoping Death would post a fourth: ‘GOTTCHA!’ or something similar. Hoping for, in the manner of Brian Blessed in Flash Gordon a ‘Pratchett’s Alive!’ moment. Partly perhaps because the announcement was filtered through an eerily real fictional characters voice as, in appropriate Pratchett manner, the boundaries of fact and fiction were blurred one final time. But more than that, desperately hoping this wasn’t:
That Pratchett would emerge, as Rincewind against all odds had managed in The Colour of Magic. Clinging to possibility.
It was with the same hope that I read with excitement yesterday in Waterstones news of a new book from Pratchett, to be published posthumously later this year. The news seemed to signal to me a very real sense that Pratchett hasn’t quite had the final word. It reminded me of how it must’ve felt to those reading The Mystery of Edwin Drood after Dickens’ death – aware both that the author was dead, but also that there was (at least for a few more months) more to come. After that of course they could cling to manuscripts, to possible solutions, and to any new words the author might have to say beyond the grave. Desperate to retain this kind of author-reader séance in which the spirit of the author is encased in words, those known and those which may be discovered in the future.
As a researcher this is something I can entirely relate to, I’m always hoping to discover something new which others have passed over – not admittedly the ending to an unfinished book, though that would be very exciting, but it’s a sentiment that is by no means restricted to literature studies, businessmen search for a niche in the market, explorers search to discover new places. Though the world is well trodden new discoveries remain exciting. Particularly discoveries which resurrect the memories of friends past. The discovery of Richard III (though certainly not a friend) is a testament to that. I think I can only explain my eager anticipation of this new book as a hope to hear once more from the new friend I so quickly lost.
But there’s something different about reader-author (and in many cases character) relationship, something more intimate – at least in a good author, so much so that the world and characters they create, hallmarked with their particular style, connects to you, and with you building a relationship that when shattered by death has such an impact because the author and the worlds and figures they crafted with words truly were a part of your life. It leaves a tangible wound just as first reading the words left a tangible mark on you. Reading is perhaps a process of scarring; slowly altering us, some books (and not necessarily the ‘better ones’ or the classics) leave deeper incisions than others. Each cut, each pang to the heart changes us fractionally, our outlook on life, perceptions of people, and much more besides. Imagine a relationship which has profoundly altered you, a person who has touched you in ways you can’t explain but whose impact on your life you will always feel. A good author can also have this kind of impact.
But there’s something else, the reason I think I was so upset about Pratchett’s passing boils down to what he made me realise about myself. I read The Colour of Magic in a matter of days, no mean feat given that I had to relegate it to bedtime reading fairly sharpish when the stacks of critical books and Shakespeare started to hit with research kicking off after a brief break for Christmas. That’s how I used to read books when I was younger finishing a book on almost a daily basis with the help of reading under the covers if I hadn’t quite reached the end. In fact that’s perhaps the main reason I’m still studying literature today, my love for reading.
It’s this I’d like to dwell on briefly because I think Pratchett via The Colour of Magic gave me back my love for reading.
Now, this is dangerous ground, I’m aware, to be treading given that I spend my days reading, and have done now for a few years. It’s not to say that I don’t enjoy it, I do. And particularly when I hear a seminar, conference paper, or even someone just chatting enthusiastically about a piece of literature they’re enjoying it fires my enthusiasm again for literature. It reminds me why and how much I love to read. I love a good bit of criticism, though there’s nothing like getting back to the texts, be it Shakespeare or otherwise, in question.
But when I read Pratchett, it took me back to how I felt reading as a child, with hunger I looked forward to reading it; I even laughed aloud (much to the confusion of my fellow train passengers). It reminded me what reading is, and what reading should always been, fun. Not a chore, not a necessity, but something that genuinely gives you pleasure and delight. I want reading to always be like this, something I look forward to and set aside time for, and not just reading Pratchett but anything. Pratchett in essence reminded me of who I was once, and reconnected me with my former book loving and reading at every possible moment self. There are, after all, so many literary worlds waiting to be explored.
‘Sometimes I think a man could wander across the disc all his life and not see everything there is to see’
-Twoflower, The Colour of Magic
I don’t think that academic study itself is to blame for shifting my perceptions of reading, life gets busy and making time to read, especially for pleasure, remains a challenge. I think Pratchett’s phrase, ‘the magic never dies. It merely fades away’, resonates strongly here. So it is with the magic of reading, for me it had become muted, but Pratchett brought back the magic with a crash, bang, and a wallop. This time I hope it’s here to stay and I firmly believe that Pratchett’s magic will never die. The delight and happiness I felt when reading The Colour of Magic, as I discovered the many-footed luggage, the crazy dynamics of the Discworld universe, the ever enthusiastic Twoflower, and grumpy but comic Rincewind, is something I never want to lose.
So all that remains is for me to thank Terry Pratchett for giving me back my love for reading, and to thank him for leaving a vast literary legacy for me to slowly work my way through. This time I won’t have to read under the covers, though I hope I’ll still feel some of that delight discovered in childhood as I turn each page, whatever literary adventure I embark upon.