The wisdom of Terry Pratchett (and of re-reading Terry Pratchett)

Like many people before me, I discovered the psychedelically colourful shelf of Terry Pratchett books in my public library when I was a teenager. I had heard of intelligent people who liked them, so when I found them, I took one out (the one about the two witches appealed to me) and I was pretty transfixed for many years after that.

Death is a favourite of mine. His SPEECH is endless amusing to me, and the combination of his deeply human and deeply inhuman aspects (like his inability to understand space when he built the house for his adopted daughter) makes him someone you would want to come and fetch you at the end of your life.

I loved the Unseen University and the orangutan librarian who spoke only in “ook”s, and the four elephants that stood on the back of the giant turtle.

But Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg are probably my greatest heroes. Their witchy wisdom, humour, practicality and no-nonsense attitudes gave me little alter-egos I could call on for some spine in my deeply insecure teenage years, and there is something deliciously subversive about reading about such intelligent, talented women whose brains and abilities awe and cow everyone around them.

I stopped reading them for a few years, though, as I felt they were a bit repetitive. Perhaps I thought I had outgrown them, or maybe all the obsessives who used to come in and look for the books in the shop where I worked put me off it.

But now I have been back at school and back at the library more often. And I decided I wanted to pick one up again to relax and switch off with some humour.

What I found, though, was astute political commentary that had gone right over my head as a teenager. Right now, for example, I am reading Making Money (about a character I had not met before: the Dickensian-named Moist von Lipwig) from the school library. I came across a comment that explains colonialism in a nutshell:

a brigand for a father was something you kept quiet about, but a slave-taking pirate for a great-grandfather was something to boast of over the port. Time turned the evil bastards into rogues, and rogue was a word with a twinkle in its eye and nothing to be ashamed of. (90)

Growing up (in KwaZulu-Natal), Cecil John Rhodes always seemed a bit like a genius-rogue: someone who had torn about the continent with his madcap schemes for the greatness of the British Empire, and wanted to create one of those railways (a railway! How quaint!) between Cape Town and Cairo. He had helped make the British Colony (as misguided as it turned out to be) what it was.

Now, of course, I realize he is an “evil bastard” whose policies and ideas still tear South African families apart because they continue to fall prey to the “slave-taking pirates” he enabled to function in his wake.

I love that someone can write about brilliant, complicated plotlines using humour, love, the ridiculous, the fantastical, and incisive socio-political commentary.

And once again, I realize why going back to an author’s writing is so valuable.

PS: If you would like to read something that explains why Terry Pratchett is brilliant in the most beautiful and complete way I have ever seen, (BUT BEWARE THE SPOILERS) have a look here at Amanda Craig’s review of his final book, Shepherd’s Crown at The Guardian.


Changes (or some thoughts on Orwell’s 1984)

I realized, yesterday, that I would like to change the title of a series of posts I do called “My Life Through Books”. I think the title is clumsy, and I actually believe that what I say about my realisations is often true for others as well. That is why I write about it in the first place. I like to articulate what I am feeling (I think it was Joan Didion who said she didn’t know what she actually thought about something until she wrote it down. I get that) and often I understand the world around me better through reading and then thinking about books. It’s the connection, that feeling of being less alone because you have found a kindred spirit in the precise arrangement of letters and words on a page.

And what I always hope for when I write about my connections, is that someone else will read my connections and feel that spark of recognition.

So the new title will be: “A life through books”. It is a subtle article change, but it is an important one, nonetheless.

All future posts will be named this, so I decided I need to go back to change my past ones so that they are consistent. And all of a sudden, I am Winston in Orwell’s 1984, going back through old publications and changing “facts” that have changed so that history is consistent with the new present.

Obviously, this blog is like a continuously evolving piece of art, so I have the right to go back and rephrase things I am unhappy about, but it did make me wonder about the nature of our online history-keeping. Anyone who wanted to erase an event from the public mind would have a much easier job than Winston, who spends his days searching endlessly through physical books and papers and painstakingly changing the names of enemies and allies.

I suppose it is more difficult, too, as people can take screen-shots, and a mistake made on any piece of social media is a mistake made forever.

But it makes one wonder.

image source: International School History


My Life Through Books #3: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

One of the books that keeps reappearing on Audible’s Bestselling/Recommended List is Japanese author Marie Kondo’s The Magical Art of Tidying Up. I read a little about it, and as I have an Audible subscription and have paid in advance to buy books on a regular basis (more on that later), I decided to give it a try (not least because I am one of the messiest people I know).

I had not even finished the book when I was so electrified by it that I decided to buy a Kindle copy so that I could refer to her advice in written form, and couriered a physical copy to my (even more messy) father on the South Coast of KwaZulu-Natal.

This was a surprise, even to me. This book has got a bit of negative press, mainly because Kondo advocates keeping only what you love and (here’s the negative bit) throwing everything you do not want away. There was even an amusing (and terrifying) cartoon in the New Yorker that pictured someone leaving a mountainous bag in the middle of a field (no doubt it will then make its way to a landfill). The cartoon was subtitled, “The Life-changing magic of shoving everything into a huge hefty bag and leaving it for somebody else to deal with”.

This is a fair criticism of the book (landfills are terrifying prospects when you really give them some thought. Did you know, for example, that Johannesburg’s landfills are only large enough for another few years’ worth of stuff?), but the book’s advice is actually fantastic if you choose to give everything away instead.

There is also one more caveat before I begin this review in earnest: this book is written for people of my income bracket (that of a teacher who may not earn a lot, but definitely earns enough to have accumulated a lot of “stuff” that I do not use). If you get angry thinking about privilege and owning more things than you know what to do with, this is not a book for you, not least because one of her pieces of advice is: if you miss something you have given away, then buy another one. This sounds incredibly wasteful, but that being said, I have not had to buy anything to replace what I have given away.

That being said, if you are able to read this on a blog, I am pretty sure you could use her advice, and you do have stuff you will feel better without.

In The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Kondo has a belief that when we have a house full of stuff that we do not use or love, it distracts us from doing and being who we really want to be, and what we really want to do. Her solution: get rid of everything that you do not love. Start with clothes (including shoes). Move on to books, then accessories, electronics that no longer work or you no longer use, papers (she recommends throwing away photographs last, as then you will have got a good sense of what you really love and what you can do without from sorting all your other possessions).

Her process sounds rather kooky. You have to take everything off your shelves and out of your cupboard and spread it all out on the floor around you. Then, pick up one item at a time and ask yourself if it “sparks joy”. If it sparks joy, then you keep it, and if it does not, then you put it on a “give away/throw away” pile.

As you get rid of things, you thank each item for existing, for everything it has done for you, and thank the people who gave you the things to you (if they were gifts). She makes the really good point that one should not hold onto gifts because of the person who gave them. One should hold onto the care and love that went into choosing and giving the gift, because that is what is important.

So being the to-the-letter-recipe-follower that I am, I followed the whole process from beginning to end. This is what I learnt:

  1. I owned a lot more than I thought I did. I do not consider myself to be someone with an endless wardrobe, but I gave away seven (!!) large black bags filled with handbags, clothes, and trinkets: much of which I had barely worn, hadn’t ever worn, or hadn’t worn in years because they no longer fit, or no longer fit how I wanted them to. I also gave away two trunk-sized collections of books. You would think I missed parts of my wardrobe if I gave away so much. One of the other teachers who saw me bringing everything in commented that I wanted an excuse to buy a whole new wardrobe. Actually, I have had to buy nothing more than an extra pair of open-toed shoes. I already had almost everything I needed: I just didn’t know it.
  1. Being able to give things that do not bring you joy to people who will derive joy from them makes you wonder why didn’t give it all away sooner. My clothes have found homes with people for whom these items are now some of their favourites (I know this for a fact). My books all went to the public library that has just had a (probably province-wide) funding cut. Now those books will go to libraries around the province that do not have copies of the books I donated. If they do, those books will be sold to raise money for the libraries. My favourite set of children’s books (the L.M. Montgomery books) went to Bruce’s children. I have not read them for years, and may never have children of my own. My children may not like them. Even though I loved them once, it felt so much better to be able to give them to children whose eyes almost popped out of their heads with excitement when they saw them.
  1. I am also mortified by how much I had to throw away. Spices and flours that had expired were testament to how much I take being able to buy and have food (and never mind food, luxuries like spices) for granted. Three people on three different budgets live in my flat, so when I cleared out the expired medicines, the man at the Clicks Pharmacy counter’s eyebrows almost shot up past his hairline in surprise when I tipped out the bag. I thought I cared about the environment, and about not wasting, but these purchases showed me the importance of being deliberate when buying things.
  1. When I wrote my thesis, I read this life-changing article (I have written about it before) that explains that people try to create their identity through the stuff that they buy and own. To a certain extent, I think that what we own says a lot about us. When I tidied my bookshelf, I donated books I always felt I should read, but could never bring myself to open past the first page or two (if that). So when I gave away the books, I discarded a version of myself that I always felt guilty for not being. When I discarded clothes, I discarded guilt at not being the body shape or size that would suit those clothes. One of the things I have been trying to do this year is to become more the person I am, not the person I feel I should be. Sorting out my stuff was an important part of that.
  1. That strange-sounding advice to thank everything is actually an incredibly moving practice when you carry it out. It made me feel humbled by my privilege, and so grateful to have had (and to have) so much. It has made me question every buying decision (do I really love this? Do I really need this?), not least because now I can see everything that I have, and I deliberately chose every item in my house.

So oddly enough, although my house is tidier than it has ever been in my life (it has been almost six months), what was really life-changing was everything connected to the process: giving things away, and in the process, finding what really matters.