Eric W Jepson
originally published 2007 in flashquake
Last night I finished my first-ever Terry Pratchett novel. I read it alongside several others, as I have the habit of being in conversation with several writers at once. A brief sampling of my bedside reveals such luminaries as Thomas Lynch (one week so far), Neil Postman (five months), Bill Bryson (about to begin), Orson Scott Card (just finished), C. S. Lewis (four months), Joseph Heller (six weeks) and Parley P. Pratt (over two years)-and that's just who's on top. It took me three years to read Les Misérables and nearly as long for Catch-22, even though they are two of the finest novels I know. Other, less polite books just kept interrupting them, vying for attention.
I remember when I was a kid, I would read clear through one Hardy Boys book before starting another. I'm not sure when I started carrying on with a dozen books at once. Or why, save there are more books than time.
Which is what makes the Terry Pratchett book unusual. I started it after finishing another great book, Ark Baby by Liz Jensen, a British novelist. I had been reading Ark Baby off and on for a couple months. Then I sped through Mr. Pratchett in three days. So strange. And with one book he has joined Vonnegut and Heller and Douglas Adams in an elite list of authors I love, whose stories are combined with an unusually beautiful and fun use of language that doesn't weaken the story, but gives it flesh and explains it to the heart. I love that. It makes me happy.
I guess I'm with Keats on this one. The destruction of the Earth by ice-nine in Cat's Cradle is hardly "beautiful" in any traditional sense, but there is something in the telling, some truth, some something. And it is magnificent. It is beautiful.
What makes it beautiful? I don't know. I've been a student of literature since I was a child, and what makes it work, I just don't know. Liz Jensen's book seemed to work on all the same levels as one of Vonnegut's best, but somehow didn't connect with my soul in the same way. And The Sirens of Titan certainly doesn't manage as well as Cat's Cradle. Why?
Well, I have theories and ideas. I've spent time taking apart short stories and explaining their power, but deconstruction does not a story make. A story has meaning not in pieces, but as a whole. A story is found in its creation by the author and its recreation by an involved reader. And when both do their jobs properly, there is beauty.
In the Terry Pratchett book I mentioned are entities called Auditors, whose job it is to catalogue the universe. The Auditors cannot understand humanity and it frustrates them because they cannot catalogue what they cannot understand. In one instance, they take apart a painting and separate the atoms into piles. But they find nothing that explains why people loved the painting. They're just regular atoms!
Stories are the same. They are just piles of paper and ink atoms, yet they live. And I love to enter a story and live its life. That ability to live stories may be what makes us human-and a story that lives true, speaks to the soul. The author and the reader communicate in a powerful, uniquely human way as we explain to each other what it means to be alive.
Which is why I read, why I write. To be part of this great, human activity we call literature, a living conversation unbound by time and unfettered by "reality." After all, if stories create their own reality, fiction can become something more true than our daily routines. This is what literature does-enlarge the human experience for each reader, showing us what is true and real and important. It can't be fully explained or understood, but it can be appreciated.
For it is beautiful.