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.


On re-reading Jane Eyre

One of the movies we had on tape that my sister and I would watch over and over again as children was the version of Jane Eyre with Anna Paquin as young Jane, Fiona Shaw as the diabolical Aunt Reed, Charlotte Gainsborough as adult Jane, and with a soundtrack motif I can hum until this day. Part of the appeal is that we accidentally taped the music video for Skunk Anansie’s “Brazen” before the film (when M-Net still had “Sound-Check”). It is set in a mental hospital suffused with red light, and shows Skin (the lead singer) throwing herself around in a padded cell. I loved (what I now know to be) the gothic drama of it all.

And perhaps those gothic longings lead me to love the film too, set on the moors in a large old house with the madwoman in the attic.

The first time I read Jane Eyre, it was a Puffin Classics Edition that I found in my Senior Primary Library at Durban Girls’ College. I read it during Needlework class when I had finished or forgotten my work, and I would hope I would find words I couldn’t understand so that I could ask the teacher looking after us to explain them. I did not have a crush on the teacher, but I really wanted validation and praise for reading such an advanced and grown-up book. In retrospect, I think my teacher would have loved and been pained by me almost in equal measure.

I read Jane Eyre again in matric at Port Shepstone High School. I wanted my seven books and films list to look beautifully curated and diverse, and so it included Jane Eyre. This time, I noticed the tortured interactions Jane has with St John Rivers (how did I not notice them at all the previous time I had read it?) and I realised I had never really understood the love story. Perhaps because I was falling in love for the first time myself that year, but also because I was almost the same age that Jane is meant to be in the book, it resonated with me anew.

Then I tutored Jane Eyre with first year Rhodes students when I was reading for my Honours Degree. I cannot remember anything they thought about it (ah, the development of the teacher’s awareness that the learning experience is not about you had not yet started for me), but I do remember reading it in Hogsback on an Opera Company practice weekend. I was sharing a room with Natasja, similarly enamoured of certain of the classics, and just as much of a romantic at heart as I am. It felt right to be reading it again, and to be noticing, for the first time, all the beautiful statements Jane makes about women and their need to be active, useful, independent and creative. Again, I wondered how I managed to miss all those wonderful, passionate declarations about the rights of women.

The latest film version came out a few years later, and although I cannot hum its motif as its combination of string harmonies is too complex for the voice, it is a no less deeply moving and lithe film score. The film also has compelling lead performances, and the deft use of light (or lack thereof) in the house is revelatory.

So, reader; I read the novel again.

This time, I wondered what it is that calls to me when I engage with this text and with this story. The language, obviously, is immaculate, and I think the love story, although wrapped in some Victorian morality, is an imperfect and exciting meeting of two souls.

I think, though, what really appeals to me, in some elemental part of my consciousness, is Jane’s steadfastness of character.

I have found really being an adult so bone-wearyingly hard because I have often felt like opinions I once held so strongly needed to be changed, and the person who I thought I was and the adjustments I thought I was capable of making were partly delusional (perhaps a kinder way of saying this would be that I had, and have, many illusions about myself).

Jane Eyre finds what she wants through being true to her sense of what is right and what is good. Her circumstances may change, society may not look about her views and wishes with approval, and she has to suffer, but she finds what she wanted and what her soul knew to be true.

I have discovered that I do not want what I thought I wanted, that my heart believed incompletely, and that my view of what is right and good has often been fundamentally flawed. The ground has often shifted beneath my feet, and it is unsettling and frightening.

But perhaps being able to re-read Jane Eyre is a kind of gift and the best kind of stability. There is the returning to the narrative and to the story, and the process of re-reading, and seeing anew. It is like being given a second chance at a life, and at a way of experiencing. These changes have made my reading of the novel richer, and I notice more of its treasures every time. I hope I am learning to see my own painful experiences of seeing anew as positively.

Perhaps one could read my above statement as an effort at self-helpifying the re-reading of Jane Eyre, but that is not what I mean. I think it is more about creating a narrative of my life that will serve me and help me to enjoy and be thankful for change. As Rebecca Solnit explains in The Faraway Nearby:

A physical therapist once told me that chronic pain is treatable, sometimes by training people to experience it differently, but the sufferer ‘has to be ready to give up their story’. Some people love their story so much even if it’s their own misery, even it ties them to unhappiness, or they don’t know how to stop telling it. Maybe it’s about loving coherence more than comfort, but it might also be about fear – you have to die a little to be reborn, and death comes first, the death of a story, a familiar version of yourself.

Reading, Teaching

Five books All Senior South African Students Should Read (according to me, anyway)

1. Nelson Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

This is such a necessary book because it gives you a brilliant overview of why the ANC was such a powerhouse of a party, and why Mandela was a great man (minus the ridiculous “ray ban” sculptures “in his honour. Cape Town, I’m looking at you). This is still the best book I have read about Mandela or the ANC. It is gripping, illuminating stuff.

2. Redi Tlabi: Endings and Beginnings

This book tells you something of the effect of apartheid on ordinary people. It is heartbreaking, triumphant and beautifully written. This book will change the way you see, which is what reading is all about.

3. K. Sello Duiker: Thirteen cents

Reading about a street kid trying to survive on Cape Town’s streets makes for uncomfortable reading, but the prose is electric and the author’s months on the streets as research makes this novel seem hyperreal. This is a read-in-one-sitting kind of book.

4. A Hidden Wholeness: Parker Palmer

Palmer is an educationalist and theologian who writes about what it means to live with integrity. In a world where learners and adults alike are forced to construct increasingly strange masks in order to be (what is considered to be) “successful”, Palmer’s book is a clarion call to be true to our souls and to save our communities in the process.

5. Margaret Atwood: The Maddaddam Trilogy

Because climate change is real; and no one describes (and satirises) the patriarchy, environmental movements, unscrupulous big business, the problematic ethics of massive gated communities and the beautiful complications of human relationships like Margaret Atwood can.

Obviously, there are numerous other books I would love to put on this list, but these are the ones I am thinking of today.

To my (numerous) readers: what would be your picks?

PS: Thanks to Prof Jonathan Jansen and Bruce Collins for this idea!


My life through books #2: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton

I first discovered Alain de Botton because we had Status Anxiety, one of his (many) books on the shelf in the book shop I managed for a few months. The job was one of the most mind-numbingly dull I have ever under-taken, despite my misty-eyed sentimentality about making it a hub for African literature and philosophy. The owners were only concerned about pushing more copies of Twilight or the latest Baldacci thriller. While both Twilight and Baldacci have a valuable place in getting the public reading (I am not a purist and believe that readers should never be shamed for their choices – but that is another blog for another day), the shop I worked in was in a mall, and readers were more likely to buy a cheaper copy from the CNA or the better stocked Exclusive Books across the corridor.

Which brings me back to de Botton. The book caught my eye because I was beginning to have Status Anxiety. I was working in retail, a job which grants the status of a punching bag (practically an inanimate object that takes a lot of abuse), but this was not the root of my anxiety. It was being in a big city for the first time, and working in a mall being constantly surrounded by beautiful things that I was unable to acquire.

Before Pretoria, the most expensive store at which I could buy clothes was Woolworths (and a small-town Woolworths with hardly anything in it). Now I was being surrounded by just about anything I wanted: from multiple copies of obscure classic books I previously thought had never landed on our South African shores, a Nine West store (this was the only store that stocked my dream shoes when I was a teenager: two-tone high heels. I saw them in a magazine and pined), and Kauai (I thought only *Cape Town* had those…). Anyway, I was a little horrified by my almost physical longing for those beautiful fabrics and crisp pages in brand new books and for the legitimacy owning such objects would grant me (this was before I read Sarah Nuttall on identity creation through consumption), so “Status Anxiety” seemed as good a term as any and I was thrilled to see someone else had written about the creeping phenomena I was experiencing in my own life.

As I explained above, though, I couldn’t afford the book at the time, so I forgot about it (and its author) until I was researching philosophies of work on the internet and came across his TED talk and Maria Popova’s recommendation of his (short-ish) book on the subject: The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. So I downloaded the audiobook (I am a Platinum member of Audible) and started listening.

de Botton calls The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work an essay rather than a book, and I would tend to agree with him. He slips straight into a description of a busy harbour and of all the produce that is shipped in and out. He details the messy, dirty behind-the-scenes work that results in the glossy malls and products that I was so bewitched by. He then goes on to explore different careers by going to speak to and spend time with the people involved and describing their day-to-day habits and the challenges of their work, interspersed with his own musings and realisations on the subject of work itself. He speaks to a rocket scientist, a career counsellor, a commercial fisherman (and the fish-factory’s owner), as well as an engineer and an accountant.

I was extremely keen to read the book, but I must say that the voice of the narrator was faintly patronising, which did not leave a good impression on me. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if I had read it in my own head. Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal (a fascinating look into evolutionary psychology) suffered a similar fate, as the narrator has a deep voice and seems to enjoy sounding his vowels and speaking as though he were giving a lecture rather than explaining interesting subject matter.

In addition, I was put off by de Botton’s occasional mockery of his subjects. His dwelling on the subject of the nasty smells of the house of the career counsellor he visits (from the cooking of cabbage to the smell of sweat from a gym) made me feel protective of his subjects: it made me upset that he made his subjects smaller and more pathetic than they (probably) already feel.

He does have some wonderful observations about the nature of the modern world and the pressures it places on people to find some kind of ecstatic fulfilment through making a lot of money and changing something in the process, specifically in the field of entrepreneurship. The statistical improbability of this happening (2 in 2000) makes this belief one of the really dangerous ones:

…in reality, the likelihood of reaching the pinnacle of capitalist society today is only marginally better than were the chances of being accepted into the French nobility four centuries ago, though at least an aristocratic age was franker, and therefore kinder, about the odds. It did not relentlessly play up the possibilities open to all those with a take on the future of the potato crisp, and so, in turn, did not cruelly equate an ordinary life with a failed one.

When I moved to this megalopolis, I quickly realised almost everyone had some kind of entrepreneurship dream stored in their back pocket or functioning out of their garage. While I do not want mean to sneer at such efforts to achieve the sublime of being your own boss and creating employment (as Talk Radio 702 seems to espouse constantly), I do worry it makes us “equate an ordinary life with a failed one”, which makes me sad.

Seeking the sublime in work does make me think that most of us see work as a way of “anchoring the motives for [our] existence” (de Botton again). Certainly, that is why many people seek to “do what you love” through work. As Miya Tokumitsu argues in this fascinating article, when we all seek to “do what you love”, it is more problematic than it first appears:

Superficially, DWYL is an uplifting piece of advice, urging us to ponder what it is we most enjoy doing and then turn that activity into a wage-generating enterprise. But why should our pleasure be for profit? Who is the audience for this dictum? Who is not?

By keeping us focused on ourselves and our individual happiness, DWYL distracts us from the working conditions of others while validating our own choices and relieving us from obligations to all who labor, whether or not they love it. It is the secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment. According to this way of thinking, labor is not something one does for compensation, but an act of self-love. If profit doesn’t happen to follow, it is because the worker’s passion and determination were insufficient. Its real achievement is making workers believe their labor serves the self and not the marketplace*.

de Botton only touches on these issues tangentially (and, at times, naively), and his essay is more focussed on musing and posing questions than answering them. This makes his writing wonderfully open-ended, and if you are looking for musings from a very particular kind of brain (one that makes sweeping comparisons to medieval morality and painters) and many descriptions of occupations, this is the book for you. If you are looking for something more concrete than one man’s whimsical description of individual encounters (as I am when I read books about matters of life and death), I would avoid it.

*You should really read this article. It is fascinating.

Procrastination Sunday

Procrastination Sunday #1

If you (like me) are a procrastinator in search of something really worthwhile to read, you may enjoy the following articles I have put together. There are only four (because you can’t procrastinate for too long on a Sunday) but I think each one changed how I thought about life this week (which, for me, is when procrastination becomes worthwhile).

Sighing over a fantasy drains energy from reality. What happens in our heads isn’t private; it is unspoken, that’s all. We all know what it’s like to live in the stifling atmosphere of what is unsaid.


and finally,

  • An old interview with Maria Popova, founder and writer of Brain Pickings, “discovery engine for interestingness”, that is still worth reading:


We’ve created a culture that fetishises the new(s), and we forget the wealth of human knowledge, wisdom, and transcendence that lives in the annals of what we call “history” – art, literature, philosophy, and so many things that are both timeless and incredibly timely.

Happy week ahead, everyone!


*Image source.