I came late to the fantasy world of Terry Pratchett, and I might never have come there at all if hadn’t been for A.S. Byatt. In 2011 in Amsterdam I interviewed her for Trouw, and afterward we were talking about her book Ragnarok and science fiction when she asked me if I had read Pratchett. When I said no she looked so crestfallen that I hastily–and somewhat truthfully–added, “I’d like to, but he has so many books I don’t know where to start.”
At that point Dame Antonia was already on record as one of Pratchett’s most prominent literary fans. What she loved above all, she wrote in a Guardian review, were his powers of invention. “He gives you more information and more story than you need, just because he can… He is a master of complex jokes, good bad jokes, good dreadful jokes and a kind of insidious wisdom about human nature (and other forms of alien nature).” She later suggested a simple reading program for young people: distribute Pratchett books free to all British 12-year-olds.
She promised to write me with suggestions for my first Pratchett book, and a week later she sent me her guide to Discworld. I quote it here with permission:
There are the wizard stories, beginning with The Colour of Magic, and the Guards of Ankh-Morpork, beginning with Guards! Guards! and the ones about witches, beginning with Wyrd Sisters. And a few other strands. The novels get better as he goes on inventing, but you miss things if you begin at the end, as he develops both characters and stories. One good one is Small Gods (from St Augustine) … Another very good one is Thief of Time. There are some late Ankh-Morpork ones that are excellent – Going Postal, or The Truth – and probably do stand on their own, tho they gain from a knowledge of the world they are set in. And one of my favourites is Jingo but I don’t think it would work so well without either Guards! Guards! or Men at Arms as background. They read fast if you like them, but more than 50% of my friends don’t.
Challenged by that last sentence I went to the city library, borrowed Thief of Time, and became an instant and lasting addict. I followed her list and found her advice to be excellent. It’s true that the early books are not nearly as good as the later ones, but it’s a pleasure to watch the central characters grow and change, and to see Pratchett develop from a low-grade parodist to a stiletto-sharp social satirist.
To this list of starting places I would add Mort, in which one of Pratchett’s most lovable and enduring characters, Death himself, makes his debut. Going Postal, with its reformed con man hero Moist von Lipwig, is a clever and endearing piece of commentary on corporate culture, the Internet, and the power of the written word. Small Gods brilliantly explores of the logic of religious belief, while Thief of Time is just full of genius inventions, from bonsai mountains to the Procrastinators, spools that wind and unwind time. Part Hitchhiker’s Guide, part Three Men in a Boat, Pratchett’s comedy finds absurdity in the familiar while putting us on familiar terms with the absurd.
Every time I requested another Pratchett book from the library I thought (and occasionally said), “I’m reading this because A.S. Byatt said I should.” Armed with her approval I bought paperbacks with childish covers and enjoyed myself immensely.
At the end of her note to me, on the subject of writers who are mothers, Byatt added a P.S.: “Do you know the stories of G.E.M. Anscombe, the philosopher who edited Wittgenstein, who commuted from Oxford to Cambridge, changing at Bletchley as one did in those days, and left her baby on Bletchley station in a Moses basket?”
It seems to me that anyone who can truly appreciate that level of materno-philosophical absent-mindedness is doomed to be a Pratchett fan.
Unless Death relents and gives him back to us, there will be no new Pratchett books. But if you haven’t started reading him, now you know how and you know why: because A.S. Byatt says you should.
Sir Terry Pratchett died on March 12, 2015. I started an obituary for him, hunched over my laptop and a Cappuccino zum Mitnehmen in the middle of the Leipzig Book Fair. Then my editor at Trouw had to call my piece off because of a prominent Dutch demise. So I wrote this instead.