What Makes This Book So Great: Concise insights, evangelistic joy

What Makes This Book So Great by Jo WaltonWhat Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton

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.

What Makes This Book So Great — (2014) Publisher: As any reader of Jo Walton’s Among Others might guess, Walton is both an inveterate reader of SF and fantasy, and a chronic re-reader of books. In 2008, then-new science-fiction mega-site Tor.com asked Walton to blog regularly about her re-reading—about all kinds of older fantasy and SF, ranging from acknowledged classics, to guilty pleasures, to forgotten oddities and gems. These posts have consistently been among the most popular features of Tor.com. Now this volumes presents a selection of the best of them, ranging from short essays to long reassessments of some of the field’s most ambitious series. Among Walton’s many subjects here are the Zones of Thought novels of Vernor Vinge; the question of what genre readers mean by “mainstream”; the underappreciated SF adventures of C. J. Cherryh; the field’s many approaches to time travel; the masterful science fiction of Samuel R. Delany; Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children; the early Hainish novels of Ursula K. Le Guin; and a Robert A. Heinlein novel you have most certainly never read. Over 130 essays in all, What Makes This Book So Great is an immensely readable, engaging collection of provocative, opinionated thoughts about past and present-day fantasy and science fiction, from one of our best writers.

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BILL CAPOSSERE lives in Rochester NY, where he is lately spending much of his time trying to finish a book-length collection of essays and a full-length play. His prior work has appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other journals and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of several Best American Essay anthologies. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, co-writing the Malazan Empire re-read at Tor.com, or working as an English adjunct, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course, the ultimate frisbee field, or trying to keep up with his wife's flute and his son's trumpet on the clarinet he just picked up this month.

View all posts by Bill Capossere

4 comments

  1. This sounds really great!
    There is nothing like other people’s infatuating book love – and I already spent way too much money on buying several of the books that Walton mentions in “Among Others” :D

  2. April /

    I haven’t read this book but have been an avid follower of her on tor.com where these posts originated. I love her enthusiasm and her ability to say something I’m feeling very concisely and with better words. Plus I really enjoy reading what she things of books that I love.

  3. I’ve also enjoyed her posts at Tor.com. Thanks for this reminder — I should go check out some more of them.

  4. Brad Hawley /

    I want to read this one . . .

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