In Praise of Good Omens

What Terry Pratchett taught
me about living as a human
in the world


I’ve outgrown Neil Gaiman. I’ve even sort of outgrown Terry Pratchett. But I will never outgrow Good Omens.

Pratchett, who died today, sometimes came off too fluffy for me; a friend compared his work to “eating frosting from the jar.” His Discworld had moments of surprising edge, but blanketed with a thick quilt of zaniness that felt silly and safe. A Douglas Adams devotee since childhood, I was discerning about my zaniness; for me, it needed more spike to get a firm grip. I read Pratchett like junk food, but I didn’t incorporate him into my psyche.

But Good Omens — Good Omens was perfect. It was perfect because its characters somehow managed to be round and soft and real even when they were deliberate, conscious tropes. It was perfect because it was funny in a way that left you breathless. And it was perfect because the alchemy of its authors — Gaiman’s self-seriousness, and Pratchett’s sweet humor—recapitulated the book’s themes: that extremes like “good” and “evil” are at best a canard and at worst megalomania, and what’s important is how you live as a human in the world.

Everyone found their eyes turning towards Adam. He seemed to be thinking very carefully. Then he said, “I don’t see why it matters what is written. Not when it’s about people. It can always be crossed out.”

There is no book more human than Good Omens. It is a book about how ideals can try to destroy us, and how being ourselves as hard as possible is the only way to proceed. It is a book about how the small wrongs we do to each other can be as harmful as the deadliest sins—and how, by the same token, every kindness is a kind of grace. If you don’t think every day, every time you’re inconvenienced and cranky or you see someone else being inconvenienced and cranky and taking it out on others, about the demon Crowley and how he minutely increased the evil in the world by snarling traffic or tying up the phone lines—if you don’t think about that every day, then either you haven’t read Good Omens or you didn’t read it hard enough. And if you do think about it every day, you can’t help but be a little more patient, a little more compassionate about the world and its caltrops.

“Seems to me, the only sensible thing is for people to know that if they kill a whale, they’ve got a dead whale.”

Good Omens is, in many ways, a hippie book. It is concerned about the fate of whales. It is concerned about pollution. It is concerned about nuclear power. At times it seems genuinely ambivalent about things like freeways and answering machines and the death of print, though its ultimate embrace of modernity is as wholehearted and pure as its nostalgia. But it wears its hippie bona fides the way Sir Terry wore his floppy hat: a charming, and removable, affectation. Good Omens has no dogma. It is the opposite of dogma. It doesn’t want you to care about a specific ballot of ills. It wants you to care—always, only, as hard as you can—about what’s important.

I’ve read enough of both Gaiman and Pratchett to know that the latter gave Good Omens its heart. And because it is part of my heart, now, indelibly—I read it almost every year, and have since I was a young teen—I, like many of us, am feeling his loss keenly today. In a lot of ways, I am at my core a golem of popular culture. I built my self-concept out of the books that shaped me, and even though it can now walk around on its own and eat dinner and fall in love and have opinions and all the things an organic creature does, if you rubbed out the magic words it would collapse into a pile of dusty tomes. When my authors die, I have to mourn.

Please read Good Omens — if you love me, if you love yourself, if you love your fellow humans or you don’t and you want to feel like loving them is possible. Today, I’m going to steep myself in Discworld books; they are funny and sweet and good for sadness. But Good Omens, for me, is like the turtle that carries Discworld around on its back: a solid ground to stand on, a ground so solid it can hold a world.

Something told him that something was coming to an end. Not the world, exactly. Just the summer. There would be other summers, but there would never be one like this. Ever again.