I wrote a quick couple of words about Terry Pratchett earlier, and I couldn’t get any more, partly because I was on a short train ride, and partly because there were tears in my eyes. It’s funny how much you can be affected by the death of someone you’ve never met. I felt the same sense of loss at the passings of Steve Jobs and Roger Ebert.
It’s a peculiarly 21st-century phenomenon that the response to the death of a loved public figure is the outpouring of grief and of stories on social media. The effect is cathartic and community-building.
It’s no surprise that my first memory of Pratchett was uncontrollable laughter, but my first experience of him was bemusement, when in my teens I read his novel Small Gods backwards. I’d always wanted to be a fantasy reader, but after Tolkien I’d never found anything I liked. Paul Kidby’s Discworld covers had always jumped out from the library shelves, chaotic and colourful and more than a little grotesque, and I think I must have looked over the series a few times before I finally chose Small Gods. I’ve got no idea why it was that one that I chose, but it was.
I didn’t get it, then. I think I got about a hundred pages in, and I remember that I enjoyed the plot but not the writing. Wanting to find out what happened, I skipped to the end, didn’t understand anything and skipped back a few pages, and then a few more, and so on until I finished it back to front. I’d never read a book that way before, and I’ve never done it since.
It was only on my second or third Discworld novel that I started to get into the rhythm of his writing, the wonderful linguistic turns that make his humour sing. I’ve often noticed that I’m not alone in that: many people take a couple of books before they start to enjoy his writing, and some give up after the first or second.
I haven’t read all the Discworld novels yet—let alone all of Pratchett’s—but I got through a few of them when I was a teenager, and more when I was in college. His writing is light, but not frivolous, with a clear, direct style that shows his roots in journalism, and his books often served me as palate cleansers between the heavier stuff I was reading for class. His more serious journalism, in particular his recent work campaigning for Alzheimers awareness and for the right to die, still carried that sardonic edge, as light and keen as an assassin’s knife.
Every Discworld fan’s got a favourite character. For me, inevitably, and though the brilliant Machiavellian Lord Vetinari comes a close second, it’s Death. Sardonic, world-weary, and full of dry quips, profound sentiments, and sometimes surprising warmth (especially towards cats), always in all caps, he was both the Grim Reaper and the friend taking everyone home. Pratchett’s Twitter account gave Death the last word:
AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER.
Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.