The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 16: The Truth (Terry Pratchett, 2000)

Books left: 10. Weeks left: 15. It’s gonna be OK.

The Patrician walked across the floor, followed by Drumknott.
‘Er, yes,’ said William. ‘Are you all right, sir?’
‘Oh, yes. Busy, of course. Such a lot of reading to catch up on. But I thought I should take a moment to come and see this “free press” Commander Vimes has told me about at considerable length.’ He tapped one of the iron pillars of the press with his cane. ‘However, it appears to be firmly bolted down.’
‘Er, no, sir. I mean “free” in the sense of what is printed, sir,’ said Wiliam.
‘But surely you charge money?’
‘Yes, but –’
‘Oh, I see. You meant you should be free to print what you like?’
There was no escape. ‘Well… broadly, yes, sir.’
‘Because that’s in the, what was the other interesting term? Ah, yes… the public interest?’ Lord Vetinari picked up a piece of type and inspected it carefully.
‘I think so, sir.’
‘These stories about man-eating goldfish and people’s husbands disappearing in big silver dishes?’
‘No, sir. That’s what the public is interested in. We do the other stuff, sir.’
‘Amusingly shaped vegetables?’
‘Well, a bit of that, sir. Sacharissa calls them human interest stories.’
‘About vegetables and animals?’
‘Yes, sir. But at least they’re real vegetables and animals.’
‘So… we have what the people are interested in, and human interest stories, which is what humans are interested in, and the public interest, which no one is interested in.’
‘Except the public, sir,’ said William, trying to keep up.
‘Which isn’t the same as people and humans?’
‘I think it’s more complicated than that, sir.’

Shabby copy of The Truth by Terry Pratchett.

The Velveteen Rabbit of books.

When once I worked in ye olde secondhand bookshop for a crust, we had this thing called the rubbish box. It’s that grubby tub of books out the front that are one step above worthless, all with a big ‘$2’ scribbled on the cover with a Sharpie.

If you are a book, you can end up in the rubbish box for one or a combination of reasons. You might be in good nick, but just a terrible book. You might be an extremely old book no one has heard of and therefore no one would pay over $2 for. You might be spine-broken (the kiss of death for secondhand books). You might be The Notebook or Message in a Bottle by Nicholas Sparks. Or you might be a Really Good Book that has been read so many times its covers have been almost loved off, the literary equivalent of the Velveteen Rabbit. These are the titles someone will still hand over cash for despite being in the kind of condition that would usually see the bookseller throw them in the bin.

The rubbish box is a bit like the dog pound. Inhabitants might be there for a month. After a while, they might have their $2 dashed out and $1 written on them instead. If they are still not adopted, they will get lobbed into the bin. The rare jewel, no matter how bedraggled and forlorn it looks when it gets in there, is still instantly recognisable as Really Good and will get snatched up within hours by someone who can’t believe their luck and doesn’t care what the poor sod looks like.

Terry Pratchett is like the Holy Grail for the independent bookseller. Finding one in the bottom of a dusty pile of Nicholas Sparks is like finding the toy prize in a box of out-of-date cereal. Even if it is in awful condition, even – EVEN, my friend, if it is spine-broken… you can scrawl as much as $4 on this baby (as illustrated) and it will be out of that rubbish-box before it has so much as warmed up its seat.

Books written by Sir Terry Pratchett – knighted six years ago for his services to literature – are Really Good Books. The majority of them are part of the Discworld series, the chronicles of a world consisting of a disc balanced upon four elephants standing atop a turtle of, as Stephen King might say, enormous girth.

The Truth is the 25th of more than 40 Discworld titles and tells the story of William de Worde, who quite by accident finds himself editor of the city of Ankh-Morpork’s first newspaper. Before he has got much beyond dealing with all of the people who want him to print pictures of their amusingly shaped vegetables, he finds himself embroiled in a story full of deceit, danger and death that goes straight to the political heart of Ankh-Morpork itself.

After taking weeks to read The Famished Road, I find myself spat out the other end of this in a matter of days. It’s beyond compulsive. I read it in front of the barbecue, ruining some perfectly good Black Angus rump, in bed (I am always very strict about not reading in bed, being a reformed insomniac) and even at the park while walking the dog. A lady is at her most batty-looking when ignoring her dog at the park while reading a book, walking into bollards and giggling audibly.

As well as being madcap and marvellous, the story is bloody clever. It is not only full of wordplay but full of subtler humour and deft insight into the frequently maddening and nonsensical world of a journalist – I am unsurprised when a quick Google reveals that Pratchett began his career as a reporter.

It was as if he’d shaken a tree and all the nuts had fallen out. Several letters were complaining that there had been much colder winters than this, although no two of them could agree when it was. One said vegetables were not as funny as they used to be, especially leeks. Another asked what the Guild of Thieves was doing about unlicensed crime in the city. There was one saying that all these robberies were down to dwarfs who shouldn’t be allowed into the city to steal the work out of honest humans’ mouths.
‘Put a title like “Letters” at the top and put them all in,’ said William. ‘Except the one about the dwarfs. That sounds like Mr Windling. It sounds like my father, too, except that at least he can spell “undesirable” and wouldn’t use crayon.’
‘Why not that letter?’
‘Because it’s offensive.’
‘Some people think it’s true, though,’ said Sacharissa. ‘There’s been a lot of trouble.’
‘Yes, but we shouldn’t print it.’
William called Goodmountain over and showed him the letter. The dwarf read it.
‘Put it in,’ he said. ‘It’ll fill a few inches.’
‘But people will object,’ said William.
‘Good. Put their letters in, too.’

This is sharp humour with a soft heart. If you know a journalist, buy them this book and prepare for their howls to echo through the house.

Keep or Kill? Terry Pratchett is really one of those authors it’s a shame to hoard – they really should be in constant circulation. I’ll give this one to the local op-shop so it can warm the shelf there for an hour or two before getting snapped up.
Note: When I reviewed Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys oh-so-long-ago for this Project, I compared his writing to Pratchett’s a little nervously, fearing a lighting bolt would strike me any moment for being so impertinent. Reading this book I was reminded of the fact that Gaiman and Pratchett had actually collaborated on a screamingly funny novel, Good Omens, which I not only knew about but had actually read, for goodness’ sake. So there you go. Not so impertinent a comparison at all, then.

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