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Robin Zebrowski, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Robin Zebrowski, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

10 Things You Should Know About the Discworld Books

Robin Zebrowski, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Robin Zebrowski, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In 2003, the BBC asked 140,000 Britons to come up with the nation’s top 100 novels. Just two writers had five works that cracked the top 100: Charles Dickens and the late Sir Terry Pratchett.

Pratchett, who was born in Buckinghamshire on April 28, 1948, wrote or co-wrote more than 70 books during his lifetime. His debut novel, The Carpet People—a slightly-altered version of a fantasy serial Pratchett wrote while working at his local paper, the Bucks Free Press—was published in 1971, followed by the bestselling Discworld series. Set on a magical, disc-shaped world supported by four elephants who in turn ride atop a gigantic turtle, these masterworks of comic fantasy have collectively sold more than 80 million copies worldwide. Here are 10 things they won’t teach you at Unseen University.

1. PRATCHETT WROTE THE FIRST FOUR INSTALLMENTS WHILE WORKING AS A SPOKESMAN FOR NUCLEAR POWER PLANTS.

In 1980, Pratchett left the Bucks Free Press to take a job as a press officer for the Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB), where his responsibilities mainly involved reassuring the public about the safety of this organization’s nuclear power plants. (It was no easy task; the CEGB hired him just a few months after the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania.) On the side, Pratchett wrote and published the first four Discworld novels: The Colour of Magic, The Light Fantastic, Equal Rites, and Mort. Following their success, he resigned from his CEGB post to write full-time.

2. RINCEWIND’S NAME WAS LIFTED FROM A NEWSPAPER COLUMN.

Many Discworld inhabitants go by peculiar names (just ask Moist von Lipwig or Carrot Ironfoundersson), but many of them don't come from thin air. “A lot of what people think of as weird names in my books are real names,” he told an interviewer in 2011. Granny Weatherwax, for example, shares her last name with Rudd Weatherwax, who trained several of the Lassie dogs that appeared in various films and television shows.

But not all of Pratchett’s characters were named after real people. Take the bumbling wizard Rincewind, whose name comes from “By the Way,” a humorous newspaper column that ran in The Daily Express from 1919 to 1975. Written for most of that time by J.B. Morgan under the pseudonym “Beachcomber,” this series featured a number of recurring fictional characters, including a red-bearded dwarf named Churm Rincewind.

As a boy, Pratchett was an avid reader of “By the Way,” and while penning The Colour of Magic, he used the name Rincewind without realizing that he’d borrowed it from Morgan’s columns. A Discworld fan later pointed this out to the novelist, at which point Pratchett “went back through all the [published ‘Beachcomber’ anthologies] and found the name and thought, oh, blast, that’s where it came from. And then I thought, what the hell, anyway.” (His argument is slightly weakened by Rincewind saying in the Colour of Magic, “I suppose we’ll take the coast road to Chirm.”)

3. THE SCIENCE OF DISCWORLD SERIES WAS INSPIRED BY A POPULAR STAR TREK BOOK.

The Science of Discworld novels combine fantasy and hard science. In the first of these books, a mishap at Unseen University creates “Roundworld,” a bizarro universe laden with strange, spherical planets governed not by magic but by the laws of physics. The school’s faculty experiments with and explores their creation over the course of the four-book series and the action is interrupted periodically by non-fiction chapters that break down real scientific topics. Written by biologist Jack Cohen and mathematician Ian Stewart, these asides tie into the narrative while educating the reader about everything from evolution to quantum mechanics.

The series had its origins in a meeting between Pratchett and Cohen at a science fiction convention in the Netherlands. At the time, Cohen was co-authoring a book about the evolution of the human intellect with Stewart. Cohen recalled in an interview that the two were having trouble getting “the chapters to gel” and asked Pratchett to advise them; later on, the trio got together at a Mongolian restaurant in Berlin, where Pratchett offered up some tips that made their way into the book’s final draft.

Since all three men were big sci-fi fans, the conversation soon turned to Star Trek. Specifically, they expressed a profound disappointment with Lawrence Krauss’s The Physics of Star Trek, a 1995 bestseller that offered insights on the TV show’s scientific underpinnings. The book did not impress Pratchett, Stewart, or Cohen, the latter of whom called it “bloody awful.” Still, Krauss’s project got Stewart thinking. “I raised the possibility of something similar related to Discworld,” he remembers. At first, the idea was shot down because, in his words, “there is no science in Discworld.”

Still, the concept seemed too good to throw away altogether—and after a while, the three men made a narrative breakthrough. “It took only a few months to find the obvious answer: since there was no science in Discworld, we had to put some there,” Stewart explains. “Instead of producing a scientific commentary on existing events in the Discworld canon, we had to write a fantasy/fact fusion in which an unfolding story of some wizardly brand of science was interlaced with a popular science book. Terry would have to tailor a genuine Discworld short story.”

Tailor one he did. Pratchett put together a 30,000-word short story that was seamlessly punctuated with essays that Stewart and Cohen authored. Once they finished the manuscript, Ebury Publishing agreed to put out The Science of Discworld in 1999. Apparently, some company higher-ups didn’t like the book’s chances. “The editor there was made to understand that if it sold less than 10,000 copies, he’d lose his job. If it sold more than 25,000 it would be a miracle. It sold more than 200,000 copies in the first year,” Cohen recently told The Guardian. Three sequels were released between 2002 and 2013.

4. PRATCHETT WITHDREW GOING POSTAL FROM HUGO AWARD CONSIDERATION.

Discworld books have received plenty of accolades: The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents took home the Carnegie Medal in 2001; Night Watch won a Prometheus Award two years later; and Pyramids earned the 1989 British Science Fiction Award for best novel. In 2005, Pratchett’s bestseller Going Postal was nominated for a prestigious Hugo Award. The awards, handed out by the World Science Fiction Society, are seen as some of the highest honors that a sci-fi or fantasy writer can hope to attain. Multiple Hugo categories exist, with “best novel” being the one that usually attracts the most fanfare. (Past winners have included Frank Herbert’s Dune and American Gods by Neil Gaiman.)

Naturally, when an author receives a “best novel” nod, he or she generally doesn’t even consider withdrawing the book in question from Hugo consideration. But that’s exactly what Pratchett did in ’05. The WSFS selects its Hugo winners at Worldcon, the society’s annual convention. Pratchett was in attendance at the 2005 gathering and, as he later explained to his bewildered readers, he chose to pass on a potential best novel award for Going Postal because he felt the selection process would keep him from enjoying the Worldcon. Pratchett thus became only the third writer in history to take his book out of the running in this particular Hugo category. (In the past, authors Robert Silverberg and James Tiptree Jr., had done likewise.)

5. IN 2011, TWO BELOVED DISCWORLD CHARACTERS APPEARED ON SOME NEW POSTAGE STAMPS.

Great Britain is—for all intents and purposes—the birthplace of the modern fantasy genre. To celebrate this contribution to popular culture, the Royal Mail postage service company issued a set of eight commemorative stamps featuring some of the most popular fantastical characters to ever emerge from the UK, including Merlin and Morgan le Fay of Arthurian legend, Voldemort and Dumbledore from Harry Potter, and Aslan and the White Witch from Chronicles of Narnia. The Royal Mail didn’t forget about Discworld’s inhabitants: Rincewind rounded out the set along with the wise old witch Gytha “Nanny” Ogg.

6. THE LAST FEW NOVELS WERE WRITTEN VIA VOICE RECOGNITION SOFTWARE.

In 2007, Pratchett announced that he’d been diagnosed with a kind of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. The disorder severely weakened Pratchett's memory, rendered certain fonts unreadable, and took away his ability to type. But despite all those major setbacks, Pratchett kept on writing. Once he lost the capacity to operate a keyboard, the author started using voice recognition computer programs in their place. Pratchett dictated manuscripts for entire novels—including the Discworld books Snuff and Raising Steam—through this kind of software. “It really isn’t a problem,” he declared in a 2013 NPR interview. “I’m a bit of a techie anyway, so talking to the computer is no big deal. Sooner or later, everybody talks to their computers—they say, ‘You bastard!’”

7. PRATCHETT RECEIVED THE OCCASIONAL LETTER FROM A TERMINALLY-ILL FAN WHO LOVED DISCWORLD’S VERSION OF DEATH.

Though He’s clad in dark robes and wields a scythe, the Death who appears in all but two Discworld novels isn’t your standard-order Grim Reaper. For one thing, He rides a white horse named Binky. He also likes physics, adores cats, and has a sort of benign fascination with the human experience. Unlike most literary embodiments of death, the figure who graces Discworld comes off as mild-mannered and somewhat compassionate. In 2004’s The Art of Discworld, Pratchett wrote about the fondness that many fans have expressed for the character. “Sometimes,” Pratchett wrote, “I get nice letters from people who know they’re due to meet [Death] soon, and hope I’ve got him right. Those are the kind of letters that cause me to stare at the wall for some time…”

On March 12, 2015, Pratchett died peacefully in his Broad Chalke home. In a way, Discworld’s Death helped announce the sad news to the world. The author had written a short story in the form of four planned tweets; when Pratchett died, his assistant Rob Wilkins logged onto the author’s Twitter account and posted them:

“AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER. Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night. The end.”

8. THE SHEPHERD’S CROWN WAS SUPPOSED TO END ON A DIFFERENT NOTE.

Five months after Pratchett’s death, the 41st entry in the Discworld series was published. The Shepherd’s Crown features the apparent demise of Granny Weatherwax, whose mentee, Tiffany Aching, is left to unite her fellow witches against a grave threat. According to Gaiman, Pratchett’s good friend and occasional collaborator, the novel was supposed to end with a poignant epilogue. “[It] would have made the book,” Gaiman told The Times, “but he never got to write it.”

The author of American Gods explained that, before Pratchett died, he’d had a conversation with the novelist about how The Shepherd’s Crown was going to wrap up. “When I talked to Terry about it, there was one little beautiful twist that would have made people cry,” Gaiman said. The big surprise involved Weatherwax and a cat named You. Apparently, Pratchett’s unwritten chapter would have revealed that the former didn’t actually die, she’d merely channeled her consciousness into the feline. “And there was going to be the final scene when she said, ‘I am leaving on my own terms now,’ and then Death turns up to take Granny Weatherwax for good,” Gaiman revealed.

9. SONY TRIED TO MAKE A WEE FREE MEN MOVIE.

“I’m allergic to Hollywood,” Pratchett once joked. So far, no Discworld novel has ever been adapted into a theatrically-released film. Still, this isn’t to say that nobody’s ever tried to make one. In 2006, Sony obtained the movie rights to The Wee Free Men, a Discworld story aimed at young adult readers. Evil Dead director Sam Raimi was set to direct, but the movie never passed the development phase because Pratchett wasn't a fan of the script. “It contained everything that The Wee Free Men actually campaigns against,” he said. “Everything about [the book] was the opposite of Disney. But the studio had kind of Disneyfied it, to make it understandable to American filmmakers.”

Speaking of Disney, rumor has it that the directors of Aladdin were working on a movie version of Mort—the fourth Discworld book—as recently as 2011. Allegedly, the idea was shelved for some reason, which opened the door for another project called Moana.

10. A NEW DISCWORLD TV SERIES HAS BEEN IN DEVELOPMENT SINCE 2011.

Discworld may never have graced the silver screen, but a few novels have been adapted for other mediums. In 1990, playwright Stephen Briggs became the first person to ever dramatize one of Terry Pratchett’s novels when he wrote a stage adaptation of the Discworld book Wyrd Sisters for the Studio Theatre Club in Abingdon, Oxon. The show premiered in 1991, and it had no trouble finding an audience: Wyrd Sisters sold out almost instantly, as did Briggs’s subsequent adaptations of Men at Arms, Making Money, The Fifth Elephant, and many other Discworld classics. There have also been radio dramatizations of Discworld: Beginning in 1992, BBC Radio 4 aired six serials based on Guards! Guards!, Wyrd Sisters, Mort, Small Gods, Night Watch, and Eric.

Television has seen its fair share of Discworld stories, too. Sky Productions, for example, has released made-for-TV films based on Hogfather, The Colour of Magic, and Going Postal. And we may soon be in for a CSI-style Ankh-Morpork drama. Although Pratchett’s daughter, Rhianna, has declared that she’ll never give anyone—including herself—permission to write a new Discworld novel, she’s been working on an original “crime of the week” TV series that will follow Sam Vimes and his fellow city watchmen on some original adventures. Titled The Watch, the show’s development began in 2011 with Terry Pratchett’s enthusiastic blessing.

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10 Facts About Charlotte Brontë
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bronte: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
Photo illustration by Mental Floss. Bronte: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock

Charlotte Brontë was born in England to an Irish father and Cornish mother on April 21, 1816. And though much of her life was marked by tragedy, she wrote novels and poems that found great success in her lifetime and are still popular nearly 200 years later. But there’s a lot more to Brontë than Jane Eyre.

1. BRONTË WAS JUST 5 YEARS OLD WHEN SHE LOST HER MOTHER.

Maria Branwell Brontë was 38 when she died in 1821 of ovarian cancer (or, it's been suggested, of a post-natal infection), leaving her husband, Patrick Brontë, and their six young children behind. In the years after Maria died, Patrick sent four of his daughters, including Charlotte, to a boarding school for the daughters of clergy members. Brontë later used her bad experiences at this school—it was a harsh, abusive environment—as inspiration for Lowood Institution in Jane Eyre. As an adult, Bronte mentioned her mother (who was also fond of writing) in a letter, saying: "I wish she had lived and that I had known her."

2. BRONTË HAD BEEN WRITING POETRY AND STORIES SINCE HER YOUTH.

Though one of her boarding school report cards described her abilities as "altogether clever for her age, but knows nothing systematically," Brontë was a voracious reader during her childhood and teen years, and she wrote stories and staged plays at home with her siblings. With her brother Branwell, especially, she wrote manuscripts, plays, and stories, drawing on literature, magazines, and the Bible for inspiration. For fun, they created magazines that contained everything a real magazine would have—from the essays, letters, and poems to the ads and notes from the editor.

3. SHE WORKED AS A TEACHER AND GOVERNESS BUT DISLIKED IT.

portrait of Charlotte Bronte
Charlotte Bronte circa 1840.
Portrait by Thompson. Photo by Rischgitz, Getty Images.

In her late teens and early twenties, Brontë worked on and off as a teacher and governess. In between writing, she taught at a schoolhouse but didn't like the long hours. She also didn't love working as a governess in a family home. Once, in a letter to a friend, she wrote, "I will only ask you to imagine the miseries of a reserved wretch like me, thrown at once into the midst of a large family … having the charge given me of a set of pampered, spoilt, and turbulent children, whom I was expected constantly to amuse as well as instruct." She quickly realized she wasn't a good fit for these caretaking jobs, but she later used her early work experiences as inspiration for passages in Jane Eyre.

4. BRONTË DEALT WITH A LOT OF LITERARY REJECTION.

When she was 20 years old, Brontë sent the English Poet Laureate Robert Southey some of her best poems. He wrote back in 1837, telling her that she obviously had a good deal of talent and a gift with words but that she should give up writing. "Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, and when you are you will be less eager for celebrity. You will not seek in imagination for excitement," Southey responded to her. The Professor, Brontë’s first novel, was rejected nine times before it was finally published after her death.

5. SHE USED THE MALE PSEUDONYM CURRER BELL.

English writers Anne, Emily and Charlotte Bronte.
English writers Anne, Emily, and Charlotte Bronte circa 1834, as painted by their brother.
Painting by Patrick Branwell Bronte. Photo by Rischgitz, Getty Images.

In 1846, Brontë paid to publish a book of poetry containing poems she and her sisters Emily and Anne had written. The three sisters used male pseudonyms—Charlotte was Currer Bell, Emily was Ellis Bell, and Anne was Acton Bell. (The book sold two copies.) Brontë also used the Currer Bell pseudonym when she published Jane Eyre—her publishers didn't know Bell was really a woman until 1848, a year after the book was published!

6. JANE EYRE WAS AN INSTANT SUCCESS.

The first page of the manuscript 'Jane Eyre.'
The first page of the manuscript 'Jane Eyre.'
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

In 1847, British publishing firm Smith, Elder & Co published Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. From the start, the book was a success—one critic called it "the best novel of the season"—and people began to speculate about who Currer Bell was. But some reviewers were less impressed, criticizing it for being coarse in content, including one who called it "anti-Christian." Brontë was writing in the Victorian period, after all.

7. BRONTË WAS LUCKY TO AVOID TUBERCULOSIS …

Tuberculosis prematurely killed at least four of Brontë's five siblings, starting with her two oldest sisters, Maria and Elizabeth (who weren't even teenagers yet), in 1825. In 1848, Brontë’s only brother, Branwell, died of chronic bronchitis, officially, though tuberculosis has also been a rumored cause, probably aggravated by alcohol and opium. Her sister Emily came down with a severe illness during Branwell's funeral and died of tuberculosis three months later. Then, five months later in May 1849, Charlotte’s final surviving sibling, Anne, also died of tuberculosis after a lengthy battle.

8. … BUT SHE DIED AT 38 YEARS OLD—WHILE PREGNANT.

In June 1854, Brontë married a clergyman named Arthur Bell Nicholls and got pregnant almost immediately. Her pregnancy was far from smooth sailing though—she had acute bouts of nausea and vomiting, leading to her becoming severely dehydrated and malnourished. She and her unborn child died on March 31, 1855. Although we don’t know for sure what killed her, theories include hyperemesis gravidarum, based on her symptoms, or possibly typhus. Her father, Patrick Brontë, survived his wife and all six children.

9. ZEALOUS BRONTË FANS TRAVEL TO HER HOME IN ENGLAND.

Charlotte Brontë's writing desk in Haworth.
Charlotte Brontë's writing desk in Haworth.
Christopher Furlong, Getty Images

Emily and Anne Brontë wrote famous books, too—Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey, respectively. The Brontë sisters's writing has inspired devoted fans from around the world to visit their home in Haworth, West Yorkshire, England. The Brontë Society’s Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth has a collection of early manuscripts and letters, and the museum invites bookworms to see where the Brontë family lived and wrote, and walk the Yorkshire moors that inspired many of the scenes each sister depicted.

10. SHE HELPED MAKE THE NAME 'SHIRLEY' MORE POPULAR FOR GIRLS.

Thanks to Brontë, the name Shirley is now considered more of a girl's name than a boy's one. In 1849, Brontë's second novel, Shirley, about an independent heiress named Shirley Keeldar, was released. Before then, the name Shirley was unusual, but was most commonly used for boys. (In the novel, the title character was named as such because her parents had wanted a boy.) But after 1849, the name Shirley reportedly started to become popular for women. Decades later in the 1930s, child star Shirley Temple's fame catapulted the name into more popular use.

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From A Game Of Thrones to War and Peace: These are America's 100 Favorite Books
Denis De Marney, Getty Images
Denis De Marney, Getty Images

Die-hard classic literature lovers might quibble over Fifty Shades of Grey being placed on the same list as Jane Eyre, but alas, the people have spoken. Both are among America’s 100 favorite novels, according to a national survey conducted by YouGov.

The list was compiled in support of The Great American Read, an upcoming PBS series about the joys of reading. Set to premiere on May 22, the eight-part series will introduce the "100 best-loved novels" and feature interviews with famous authors, comedians, actors, athletes, and more. A few of the featured guests will include George Lopez, Seth Meyers, Venus Williams, and James Patterson. Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, A Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao author Junot Díaz, all of whom have books on the list, will also make appearances.

On the day of the series premiere, PBS will launch a round of voting to determine "America’s Best-Loved Novel." Viewers across the country will have the chance to choose their favorite book from the list of 100 and place their vote online, or through Facebook or Twitter using the #GreatReadPBS hashtag. The winner will be announced this fall.

The oldest book on the list is Don Quixote, a classic Spanish novel by Miguel de Cervantes (1603), while the newest is Ghost (2016), a young adult book by Jason Reynolds. The list includes authors from 15 different countries, and the books span several genres. Many of the novels are staples on high school summer reading lists, including 1984, The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Scroll down for the full list of America's favorite books, arranged in alphabetical order.

1984
A Confederacy of Dunces
A Game of Thrones
A Prayer for Owen Meany
A Separate Peace
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
The Alchemist
Alex Cross Mysteries (series)
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Americanah
And Then There Were None
Anne of Green Gables
Another Country
Atlas Shrugged
Beloved
Bless Me, Ultima
The Book Thief
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
The Call of the Wild
Catch-22
The Catcher in the Rye
Charlotte's Web
The Chronicles of Narnia
The Clan of the Cave Bear
The Coldest Winter Ever
The Color Purple
The Count of Monte Cristo
Crime and Punishment
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
The Da Vinci Code
Don Quixote
Doña Barbara
Dune
Fifty Shades of Grey
Flowers in the Attic
Foundation
Frankenstein
Ghost
Gilead
The Giver
The Godfather
Gone Girl
Gone with the Wind
The Grapes of Wrath
Great Expectations
The Great Gatsby
Gulliver's Travels
The Handmaid's Tale
Harry Potter (series)
Hatchet
Heart of Darkness
The Help
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
The Hunger Games
The Hunt for Red October
The Intuitionist
Invisible Man
Jane Eyre
The Joy Luck Club
Jurassic Park
Left Behind
The Little Prince
Little Women
Lonesome Dove
Looking for Alaska
The Lord of the Rings (series)
The Lovely Bones
The Martian
Memoirs of a Geisha
Mind Invaders
Moby Dick
The Notebook
One Hundred Years of Solitude
Outlander
The Outsiders
The Picture of Dorian Gray
The Pilgrim's Progress
The Pillars of the Earth
Pride and Prejudice
Ready Player One
Rebecca
The Shack
Siddhartha
The Sirens of Titan
The Stand
The Sun Also Rises
Swan Song
Tales of the City
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Things Fall Apart
This Present Darkness
To Kill a Mockingbird
Twilight
War and Peace
Watchers
The Wheel of Time (series)
Where the Red Fern Grows
White Teeth
Wuthering Heights

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