Between 2008 and 2011, Nebula and Hugo Award winning author Jo Walton (Among Others) wrote a blog hosted on Tor.com, wherein she discussed various topics within her chosen genre of science fiction/fantasy. Being a prolific reader throughout her entire life, she often discussed specific books that had made an impression on her, both good and bad. Sometimes her thoughts were more overarching, even touching on the act of reading itself.
A number of these blog entries – 129 of them, in fact (with an introduction) – have been bundled together and presented under a single cover to become What Makes This Book So Great, a reflection of “re-reading the classics of science fiction and fantasy”. Make no mistake, though, this is not a critical reflection about literature – this a someone who passionately loves reading sharing that love with other like minded readers.
I always resist when people call me a critic. I resist because my degree is in Classics and Ancient History, not in English. I never studied this stuff. I’m not qualified to be a critic. Literary criticism is a conversation, and it’s a conversation I’ve never been part of – critics are in dialogue with the text but also in dialogue with each other. I’m talking about books as part of a different conversation, one with its roots much more in fanzines and Usenet than in periodicals. Beyond that, I resist the term because critics are supposed to be impersonal and detached, they’re not supposed to burble about how they cried on the train.
It’s pretty darned obvious that Ms. Walton loves books, loves science fiction, loves fantasy and loves reading. It’s refreshing.
What I really enjoyed with this book was that I didn’t have to read every word to have fun with it. The essays were short and sweet enough that if I started reading one that talked about a particular book, and I wasn’t interested in that particular book, I could simply skip to the next essay without feeling like my overall reading experience had been compromised – and this from someone who is sometimes obsessively thorough.
I think this is because the essays truly did feel like they were conversations rather than lectures, or even intellectual ruminations (although they certainly showed a deep knowledge of the science fiction and fantasy genre, and also a deep understanding of literary elements). I felt less like I was listening to Jo Walton pontificate from behind a podium or up on a stage, and more like we were in a coffee house chatting over the house blend, or conversing on a commuter train. Had there been a possibility for a two-way conversation, I’m sure she would have listened as much as talked. This, too, is refreshing.
I did wish that there was more of a discussion on contemporary sci-fi/fantasy literature; most of the books that she rhapsodized on were from the 1980s and 1990s – certainly not all, but most. Not that this dated them, but it did make them less accessible for me, personally. I had read very few of the titles or authors she addressed (which is not a decided drawback, but that means that I didn’t have the ability to relate to what she was saying), and there were numerous times when she talked about books that were out of print and difficult to procure. Occasionally I was frustrated when a book she was recommending sounded intriguing, but my ability to follow up was stymied by it’s being unavailable; not all of us have well stocked used bookstores nearby where we can pick up copies of these volumes. But then again – she’s talking about books she loves, books she has read and re-read (and very well might read again). Just because they aren’t in print doesn’t mean she doesn’t have every right to enthuse about them.
And it’s not like she just talks about particular books. I particularly enjoyed the essays about the sci-fi or fantasy aspect of the genre, or about reading in general. There was one essay where she asked if her readers skimmed uninteresting passages when they read – something she had learned that a friend did, but had never crossed her own mind to do. That kind of candid, occasionally gentle self-mocking of her own perceptions is…. well, quite refreshing.
In this day and age of pundits pontificating on every corner of our modern existence, or so-called experts clamoring to be heard above the fray, it’s nice to be able to settle back and listen to someone be enthusiastic rather than bombastic, especially when that person truly does have the chops to be called an expert in her field. What Makes This Book So Great makes me want to clear off more of my time for reading, for getting lost in a good book, for pure and unadulterated enjoyment of being transported to another world, another reality. I’m pretty sure Jo Walton would be pleased to hear this. And that is a big part of what makes this book so great.