In 2008, Jo Walton began a regular column over at Tor.com on the books she was reading. Actually, mostly re-reading. She was invited to blog on the site because, as Patrick Nielsen Hayden told her, she was “always saying smart things about books nobody else had thought about for ages.” In What Makes This Book So Great, she’s collected about a fifth of those posts and presented them in brief essays, being careful to point out she is doing so as neither a reviewer (who mostly cover new works) nor a critic. Instead, she tells us, “I want to talk about books and turn people on to them . . . I’m am rereading them [the books] for the sheer joy of it. I want to share that . . . I am talking about books because I love books.”
It doesn’t take long for the reader to pick up on that; Walton’s sheer exuberance about books and reading, and these books and re-reading in particularly, is the collection’s shining light, guiding the reader from one piece to the next, even when one doesn’t know anything about the books she is discussing or (rarely) disagrees with what she is saying about the books one is familiar with. The tone, as one would expect for her intent, and her medium (blogging) is conversational, lively, and always engaging. And yes, she often does say smart things. This is true also in the several essays that do not talk about particular books but instead address more general topics: genre, when one should begin reading a long series, how to talk to writers, why she rereads books she didn’t like the first time, and so on. That voice — inviting and intelligent — is easily the collection’s main strength.
The other is its breadth. Walton responds to over a 100 books/authors in this collection, a small sampling of which includes: Arthur C. Clarke’s Against the Fall of Night, Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Heinlein’s Juveniles, Octavia Butler’s Kindred, Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and James Blish’s A Case of Conscience. This is no stroll through a top twenty list of fantasy/science fiction though; there were plenty of books/authors I had not only never read but never heard of, and I consider myself relatively well read. She also wanders outside the genre world now and then, taking a look, for instance at Middlemarch (one of my own personal favorites). Finally, she takes a good amount of time to delve not just broadly but deeply into two long series: Lois McMaster Bujold’s VORKOSIGAN series and Steven Brust’s DRAGAERA series.
While the voice and the sweeping content are plusses, the format can be frustrating at times. By their nature, blog posts are short, and when one translates them to book form, I’d argue that shortness gets exaggerated in that (and this could be my own quirk) the book format lends a sense of weight in and of itself, and so the posts end up seeming more wanting than they might have on one’s computer or mobile device. This happens as well because in a blog, the original post is not the thing itself; it is the jumping off point to the thing. The ensuing conversation is often where the true substance lies, and so these essays feel a little slight. However, there is a remedy for this — the original posts and the (often lengthy) discussions still exist and are active.
The book can be frustrating also in that when the subject is a book one is unfamiliar with, then the posts are of a good length in that they serve as a brief introduction to the work and often (though not always) pique the reader’s interest in seeking out the work. But when the book is one the reader knows well, then the posts feel like they are merely skating the surface, leaving you wanting much, much more (again, one might find that in the comments online). And at times, though rarely, the serial, blog nature of it makes its presence known in some repetition or some flatter than usual writing.
What Makes This Book So Great therefore didn’t quite satisfy me wholly, but I still recommend it for its concise insights, its evangelistic joy in reading in general and reading SFF in particular, and its intelligently inviting voice. And if reading What Makes This Book So Great sends readers back to books they haven’t picked up in years/decades, or to some of those books they were unaware even existed, and finally, to the original blog posts themselves, where the conversation adds so much to the original, then really, who could possibly argue against such a result? Not I.