What Makes This Book So Great, by Jo Walton

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Publication date – January 21, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) 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.

Thoughts: Jo Walton is one of those authors whose work I haven’t read nearly enough of it, and I’m always struck by that whenever I do read anything she’s written. (Which I confess is usually me rereading Among Others for the umpteenth time.) She’s the kind of author who makes me remember why I love to read, and what she writes makes me want to read just about everything in sight. There aren’t too many authors I’ll say that of.

(Is it creepy of me to say that I wish I was her, just a little bit? Or at least that I had her reading speed. When she talks about reading multiple books in a day, I just kind of sigh with envy.)

Walton’s large collection of essays from Tor.com was incredibly thought-provoking, her comments on books that I may or may not have read got the wheels turning in my head and provided a wonderful and different perspective on other similar fiction that I have read. The essay highlight why talking about books can be such a wonderful thing. Different opinions lead to discussion, to a greater understanding, to perspectives a single person may not have considered on their own. Meaning apparent to one is not always apparent to another, and knowing that Walton is both a prolific reader and an excellent and observant critic made reading her commentaries a real treat for me.

Most of the time. It’s one thing to read one, maybe 2 essays written about a book or series that I have never read; even if I don’t know the plot or characters or setting or any of that, I can still enjoy commentary on themes or observations about various aspects of the work. But more than that? It gets tedious. Or rather, it got tedious, since there were a few series mentioned in multiple essays, looking at each book individually, then the series as a whole, and while that may be interesting for someone who has read the series, for someone like me who has not, it was just boring. In the end I had to skip chunks of them; it got too frustrating to be bombarded with more talk about things that I didn’t know and that no context would really be given for. Not that the essays weren’t insightful. It was that they were just lost on me, and that there were so many of them, one after another.

I suspect this might be a sticking point for many readers of this collection. It’s a stretch to expect that anyone who reads this will have read all the books Walton is commenting on, so we’re all going to have to take our lumps somewhere and read about some books we have yet to get around to. But 3 pages is much easier to deal with in that regard than, say, 50 or more.

Still, Walton does have the kind of writing style and observation that will draw in those with a similar passion for criticism and analysis, and I learned a lot from reading What Makes This Book So Great. It’s like a primer for those who want to be critics but don’t know where to begin. You can hand them a copy of this book and tell them, “Here, try to do it like this.” Whether you agree with her opinions or not, you can’t deny that she makes a fantastic point and her thoughts are well worth reading.

(I was also impressed by the fact that she wrote something on a novel that I was beginning to think that I’d just dreamed about reading, because I’d seen nobody else mention it anywhere. Katherine Blake’s The Interior Life. While I disagreed with some of the things she said about it, her essay helped me see things from a different perspective, which was interesting, and made me want to read it again to see if my opinion of the book may have changed over time.)

Having read it, I know it’s the kind of book that isn’t just going to get read once. It’s a reference guide, something I’ll return to again and again for inspiration for my own commentaries, and because yes, like Among Others, my To Be Read pile has just exploded and I’m going to want to revisit some of the essays after reading the book so that I can have a deeper appreciation of both. It’s a must-have book for many genre fans and just about every reviewer of genre fiction.