There's nothing like a hardback book to make you wonder: "what's the point of hardback books?". They're more awkward to use and less portable than paperbacks, they take up more than their fair share of space, and they're expensive. They're grandiose relics, like stately homes in a world designed for suburban semis, except you don't even get a nice cup of tea and a slice of cake when you stump up for a hardback book.
They'd be harmless, though, if it wasn't for the hardback-exclusivity of new books. This actually depresses total book sales, at least from me, because the media review books as soon as they come out, but if a review actually convinces me to buy, I then have to wait up to a year for it to come out in paperback, by which time I've forgotten all about it. And unless it makes the Waterstones 3-for-2, I'm unlikely to chance across it again. Nice work, publishers!
The one advantage to hardbacks is that they are impressive. They have a pleasing heft, and like that other refugee from the past, the vinyl record, they display their covers as nature intended. This is what will ensure their survival, long after cheap paperbacks have been crushed by the coming onslaught of the e-reader. Even after all everyday reading goes electronic, hardbacks will still be needed to grace coffee tables, to be given as Christmas gifts, or to be artfully arranged on the newly-liberated bookshelves. They have a bright future as an ornament, just like old-fashioned ploughing equipment still hangs on the walls of country pubs.
Still, for now buying new is the only reason to go hardback. If there's one author that deserves this extravagance, it's Terry Pratchett. If you're a Pratchett fan, you'll probably know where the title of this blog was stolen from, so it won't come as any surprise that I'm a fan too. If you're not a Pratchett fan yet, I'll let Wikipedia fill you in. Be sure to come back here in 36 books' time (I recommend starting with Mort).
For all the publisher-bashing above, I'm very grateful to them for consistently bringing out new Discworld novels just in time for my birthday. The latest is Unseen Academicals, in which football comes to the city of Ankh-Morpork. Except it's not really new. As of this book there's always been a traditional form of the game played called "foot-the-ball", and it's now extremely popular to the point where the crowds are getting out of control. To my knowledge there's never been any reference to a sporting culture in the city before, so it's a jarring revelation. This is an occupational hazard in any long-running series, but I think it could have been handled more sensitively, perhaps by making foot-the-ball an annual event, as medieval football games often were in our world.
The action centres on the Unseen University. For the first time we get a feel for how it functions behind the scenes, with rich detail provided in the form of candle dribblers and the Night Kitchen. In these fields work Trev, Glenda, Juliet and Mr Nutt, who go on to play the central roles in the story. All four are interesting characters and increasingly so as they get involved in the game and, not unrelatedly, the fashion industry. Mr Nutt in particular is fascinating. One of the major appeals of the Discworld setting is the opportunity it gives to explore human prejudice much more thoroughly than could be achieved in a wholly realistic novel. Mr Nutt's development is a brilliant example of this.
The wizards of UU play a large part too. In recent times the faculty has approached a comfortable steady state, much like some of the other long-running character groups (the City Watch and the witches). Things are shaken up in Unseen Academicals. The Dean has left for a rival university and Dr Hix, an entertainingly rule-bound version of the dark wizard archetype, has joined. The rivalry with the former Dean synchronises with themes of competition running through the book and gives Archchancellor Ridcully a much-needed enemy to thwart.
The stakes, however, never seem high enough to give the game's preparations sufficient urgency. The social and financial worries that drive the story are minor compared to other books, especially the very early ones where planetary destruction was regularly threatened. It's great that modern day Ankh-Morpork is a complex, subtle environment, but this time around I did long for an incursion from the Dungeon Dimensions.
The handling of the new version of football is also a little off-putting. Too often it descends into explicit parody, harking back to the "Discworld Does X" style last seen in Moving Pictures and Soul Music. Unlike those, however, the philosophical depth typical of the later books is present again, and many aspects of the human condition are brilliantly illuminated through the lens of the game. Pratchett also presents an eloquent defence of football itself, both the visceral thrill of watching it in a crowd and the tactical intricacies of playing it. Some passages are clearly aimed at the stereotypical sport-averse fantasy reader, such as when the obvious similarities to board games are pointed out explicitly.
Whether Unseen Academicals convinces the sport-phobic is an open question. But it should at least put to rest the doddery old argument that sport is meaningless, that football is just 22 people kicking a ball around in field. By that token life is meaningless too: it's just 10^79 atoms bumping into each other in a universe, after all. We have to invest meaning in things ourselves, and it's no less real a concept for that. The hardback format gives Pratchett a chance to point this out, prominently, on the back cover:
The thing about football - the important thing about football - is that it is not just about football.
PS: I was lucky enough to visit Portland, Oregon while I was reading Unseen Academicals. If you're ever there, keep a look out for a wall featuring Pratchett's autograph:
More on this place in the next post.
Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett
First published 2009