Most of us, readers especially, can point to a work in our lives that influenced the way we think. We’d prefer it be someone impressive, Nietzsche, Kant, Salinger, Steinem, or Malcolm X. Someone you can genuinely bring up with reverence in intelligent company. There’s a range, somewhere from your teens to early twenties where works of literature, film, and philosophy have a greater impact than any other time in our lives. They’re introductions to thoughts outside of what we grew up with. What our parents, teachers, and friends taught. What we discover through these works can shape our beliefs in enduring ways.
I did not encounter someone pretentious at this age. Instead, I stumbled across Terry Pratchett. To this day, I’m glad I did.
I’ve been having a hard time finishing books lately, so I decided to return to Pratchett for some comfort reading. I picked up Jingo. It was one of the first books I read by him in high school. Jingo is the story of our heroes in the Ankh-Morpork City Watch getting swept up as their city goes to war against neighboring Klatch over a worthless island that spontaneously pops up in between their territory. When you reread something at a different point in your life, there’s a danger of it losing its magic. Instead of diminishing returns, I was struck by how much he must have influenced me in ways I could not see while I was introduced to his Discworld books for the first time.
If you’re not familiar with Pratchett, let me tell you what resonated with me as I reread Jingo. It’s really hard for me to recap a Discworld novel without descending into just listing quotes. So while I’m trying to avoid that, I’ll go ahead and start with one, shall I?
It was because he wanted there to be conspirators. It was much better to imagine men in some smoky room somewhere, made mad and cynical by privilege and power, plotting over the brandy. You had to cling to this sort of image, because if you didn’t then you might have to face the fact that bad things happened because ordinary people, the kind who brushed the dog and told their children bedtime stories, were capable of then going out and doing horrible things to other ordinary people. It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was Us, then what did that make Me? After all, I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do the bad things.
Much of the book deals with xenophobia, racism, and patriotism. How do you remain a patriot when you think your country and countrymen are bloody stupid? Yes, I asked the book, hypothetically how would one handle that? At one point, a new leader takes over the city and demands that the Watch takes all Klatchian residents into custody because they might… do something. And everyone’s saying 1984 hits close to home.
Odd thing, ain’t it…you meet people one at a time, they seem decent, they got brains that work, and then they get together and you hear the voice of the people. And it snarls.
I like that the characters struggle between optimism and pragmatism. It can be a little heartbreaking to feel goodwill towards man dissolve into reality. That’s the point where Pratchett gives me hope. He suggests, throughout his books, that we need to see the truth of things, but we also need to work to change them for the better and believe that’s possible because what else can we do? I couldn’t put it into words then, but now I know that through his works, he made me a humanist.
My first time around reading Pratchett, I was impressed with his observations on human nature, his belief that most people are mostly good, and his acceptance that, despite point two, people can do really bad things to each other out of malice or ignorance. That’s life, he said. Accept it, or… Well, there’s really no other option so might as well enjoy it as much as you can. I didn’t know that as I voraciously consumed his writing, I was incorporating it into who I am. So while the first time I read most of his books I relished his viewpoint, as I read them again, over a decade later, I see my own perception of life echoed back to me. Guys, I’m pretty sure he put that there.
I think Pratchett is a great writer to be reading right now. I think, if he were alive, he would be calling bullshit on this current U.S. administration, but he would also remind us that turns out the other side is probably trying harder to be good than we think, and we’re a lot less righteous than we think. He’d caution us to be aware that the other side might be right sometimes, and we might be wrong. Even if we come to the conclusion that this is not the case, it’s good practice to remind ourselves. Pratchett’s books make you glad to be a part of humanity, even when you’re fully aware humanity is a bloody, vindictive, irrational mess, and that’s a feeling I need to keep close right now. Thank gods I chose him instead of Rand.