Pratchett, Terry. Dodger’s Guide to London.

NY Doubleday, 2013.

It’s an article of faith that I will happily read anything Terry Pratchett cares to write. And there’s some interesting stuff in this relatively slender volume, especially for the reader who isn’t very familiar with Victorian London. Still and all, it’s a bit of a disappointment, as if the author took bad advice from his editor and was also assigned a rather mediocre designer.

Jack Dodger is the hero of the young adult novel of the same name, published in 2012, which is based in turn on Dickens’s Artful Dodger, and which includes Charlie Dickens and Henry Mayhew (author of the seminal London Labour and the London Poor) as supporting characters. The present volume purports to be Jack’s notes on the city of the 1850s, “with an especial interest in its underbelly.” The short chapters are topical, beginning with the upper classes (the Cream), moving down through the middle classes (the Shopkeepers), and settling in for an extended exploration of the world of the impoverished — Jack’s world, before he got lucky (and a knighthood). The text is heavy on bulleted “Did You Know?” lists, definitions of slang, and capsule biographies of people like Ada Lovelace, Joseph Bazalgette, Benjamin Disraeli, and Joseph Merrick. Various London institutions are described, including Bedlam, the Houses of Parliament, St. Paul’s, the Wapping docks, street buskers, prizefighters, Fleet Street, the penny dreadfuls, the Bow bells, the workhouses, the shonky shops, the sewers (Jack himself is an experienced tosher), and finally the rookeries — especially Seven Dials. There are quotes and cartoons throughout from Punch, the Morning Post, The Tomahawk, and other Victorian publications.

I’ve been a student of 19th-century social history for a long time and there really wasn’t anything here that was new to me — though I didn’t spot any particular errors, either. Pratchett appears to have done his research — but he always does. The style is light without being superior (Sir Terry is simply incapable of acting superior to anyone) and the humor is gentle.

However, as a physical artifact, the book has not been well thought out. The brown text is printed on cream-colored paper, which provides insufficient contrast, making it difficult to read if your eyes are more than twenty year old. The Punch cartoons are reproduced at a smaller size than the originals, and so are the captions, which means the Victorian-style type is very thin-lined — and also very difficult to read. And each chapter opens with a paragraph printed in a grotesque typeface I don’t even recognize, meant to suggest Jack’s struggling penmanship — which is (this time) gratuitously difficult to read. This book would have more successful in a larger format, printed in black type on white paper, and with a more standard typeface throughout.

Published in: on 23 December 2014 at 7:09 am  Leave a Comment  
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