A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry Pratchett
A Slip of the Keyboard collects much of Terry Pratchett’s non-fiction. In speeches, articles, and letters, Pratchett holds forth on a variety of subjects, ranging from book tours to hats to policies relating to Alzheimer’s and assisted dying. He also discusses Australia, conventions, and his development as a writer.
The book is divided into three sections, and I found the third section, entitled “Days of Rage,” the most powerful. Most of these texts touch on either Alzheimer’s or assisted dying. Eager to move past any taboo related to his disease, Pratchett concisely and generously shares what he experiences before urging his audience to take action. Though many lines stand out in this section, here is one that struck me: “It occurred to me that at one point it was like I had two diseases — one was Alzheimer’s and the other was knowing I had Alzheimer’s.” He explains in detail what he could do and what he could not do, and how he works around complications from the disease. Though Pratchett seeks to shape British policy in these texts, they will be emotionally trying no matter the reader’s nationality.
Although it is not a comprehensive collection of Pratchett’s non-fiction, there is a surprising amount of overlap in A Slip of the Keyboard. “Let There Be Dragons,” published in 1993, is an interesting essay on the merits of fantasy, but by the time we get to “Cult Classic,” published on a similar theme in 2001, the tone seems to have changed. It’s difficult to tell, however, if Pratchett has become more strident or if the repetition has created an illusory change in tone. At other points, Pratchett will write that he has made a lot of money writing about trolls or that there is a “special circle of hell” for teachers that have disappointed him. When these phrases and claims are repeated, again, and then again, and then once more, they become grating, like that friend who rehashes the same story every time you see him but still thinks that these stories always “get a few laughs.” It might not help that Pratchett seems invited to speak on the same small number of subjects very often, but what’s worse is that he will sometimes complain that he is so often asked to talk about, for example, where he gets ideas. What usually follows this complaint, however, is a near identical explanation about where he gets his ideas.
It is therefore difficult to identify the best works here. “A Word About Hats” is the only text on hats, and though it probably is not be the best essay here, it remained a stand-out for me when I’d finished the book. Although I found it difficult to sympathize with a millionaire’s complaints about taxation, Pratchett’s letter to the editor on taxation stands out simply because of its relative novelty. While many of the titles on Alzheimer’s stand out, particularly “I’m slipping away a bit at a time … and all I can do is watch it happen,” the essays themselves still blur together. Readers may do well to read A Slip of the Keyboard in installments, perhaps one or two texts per week, and they might also consider moving from one part of the book to another rather than reading them in the order they are presented.
Having said that, I do recommend beginning at the beginning with Neil Gaiman’s foreword, which provides an anecdote illustrating Pratchett’s capacity for anger. I liked the foreword because readers often seem to describe Pratchett as an amiable bloke who doesn’t a mind a pint now and then. He likely was an amiable bloke who didn’t mind a pint now and then, but there is a good deal of snark, annoyance, and I guess anger too, at the heart of the DISCWORLD novels.
A Slip of the Keyboard is an odd book, in my humble opinion, if only because it’s not a comprehensive collection, and yet it contains a frustrating amount of repetition. It would benefit from an index, and I’d be happy to see it arranged in chronological order rather than broken into three loosely assembled themes. Still, this book does provide what it claims: a collection of Pratchett’s non-fiction. And there’s no denying that it is pleasing to hear Pratchett’s voice coming through so clearly in these texts.
Excellent review, Ryan. I haven’t read this collection yet (though I have read a few of the essays here and there), but from what you’re saying, it seems that a chronological ordering system might have been a better choice.