“It’s still magic even if you know how it’s done.”
Part of me wishes I had more time, that I didn’t have two deadlines looming so that I might take enough hours to write the obituary and tribute that Terry Pratchett deserves. The other part of me knows that even if I had an open calendar, there just aren’t enough hours to do so.
Pratchett, who had been suffering form the earlier stages of Alzheimer’s for a number of years, passed away this morning at the age of 66. I find myself crushed to learn of it. My emotional reaction to the news is far more intense than I would have thought, and I’ll probably need some time to unpack exactly why exactly this is.
I suspect, however, that the answer is this: There are many writers I think more skilled than Pratchett, and certainly more than a few who write with more depth. Goodness knows there are scores who stand far in front of him on the Important Works shelf. But what I think I am fully realizing now — right now, as I write these words — is that there has never been an author who I have enjoyed as much as I have enjoyed Terry Pratchett. Indeed, I can never even quite figure out how to best catalogue him in my mind. Fantasy writer? Humanist writer? Humorist? Satirist? Philosopher? A really, really good teller of tall tales? You’d be reading one of his books, just enjoying the deceptively difficult craft of spinning a page-turning, light-hearted, laugh-out-loud yarn, and then — BAM! — he’d sneak up on you with a sentence so utterly profound that you’d be stopped in your tracks, reading it over several times and knowing that you’d remember it for years to come.
My first taste of his work was almost twenty years ago, when I was traveling around the state by car as part of my job. I’d picked up an audiobook recording of Small Gods from the local public library on a whim, and I found myself transfixed by both the narrative and Nigel Planer’s wonderful voices. After Small Gods came Pyramids, and after Pyramids came the Rincewind books.
It’s funny now to note that there were three types of Discworld Books — the books about Death, the books about the Night Watch, and the books about the witches — that I resisted reading for a long time because I thought they sounded dull and uninteresting. Now, of course, these are my favorites. The books about Death surprised me by being so tender and loving. Pratchett used the character of Death like Star Trek used Spock and Data: a perennial outsider whose perspective allowed us to poke at what it truly means to be human. The Night Watch books ended up being terrific procedurals that smartly dealt with topics such as class, racism, nationalism, and — through the city’s morally ambiguous ruler — the steep price we pretend we never have to pay in exchange for living in a peaceful civilization.
My absolute favorites, though, are the books about the witches. Of all the Terry Pratchetty things Terry Pratchett did, the Terry Pratchettest of them all was to make the Discworld’s lone action-hero protagonist a small, withered, old spinster with a name like Granny Weatherwax. All of the witch books are, in their own unique ways, books that pretend to be adventure stories but are in fact about the power of stories to shape our realities. In a sense, each of the witches books is the same exploration told from a different persecutive. Wyrd Sisters explored the power of stories told through performance, while Witches Aboard did the same with the stories of folklore. Lords and Ladies looked at how our most important stories evolve and change over time, sometime at the expense of undermining their original lessons. Masquerade reveled in how the pull of music can amplify stories, and Carpe Jugulum, the last of the series, used a stark an unblinking eye to look at those stories that come to us through religion.
This past Christmas I bought the first two books from the young-adult Tiffany Aching series for Jason and Boegiboe’s amazing and delightful daughter, who reminds me so much of that plucky young protagonist. I am realizing now, with no small amount of shame, that it’s still sitting on a desk in our living room under a pile of other books. I never got around to mailing it, because… well, because sometimes in life things get all mixed up, and for a while you mistakenly think that laundry and shopping and earning a living are the true Important things in life, which are far more important than the mailing of a book about a teenage witch to a young girl who lives thousands of miles away.
This afternoon, I will head to the post office and correct that mistake.
 I cannot stress Planer’s voice work enough. To this day, I cannot read a Pratchett book without hearing his voice — all of his voices — inside my head. A few years after I listened to a few of his Discworld narrations, many of Planer’s voices found themselves unashamedly stolen by me in the use of reading Dr, Seuss’s, Maurice Sendak’s, and basically everybody else’s books to my boys.