What Makes ‘What Makes This Book So Great’ So Great? A Love of Reading


By Jim Higgins

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


“What Makes This Book So Great: Re-Reading the Classics of Science Fiction and Fantasy” by Jo Walton; Tor ($26.99)


What makes Jo Walton’s new book, “What Makes This Book So Great,” so great indeed is that it champions adults reading for pleasure, and in Walton’s case rereading for pleasure.

“I am talking about books because I love books,” she writes. “I’m not standing on a mountain peak holding them at arm’s length and issuing Olympian pronouncements about them. I’m reading them in the bath and shouting with excitement because I have noticed something that is really really cool.”

What makes her book so great is that she’s a pretty terrific writer herself. The author of multiple fantasy and alternate-history novels, Walton has won both the Hugo and Nebula Awards for “Among Others” (2012), one of the most bookish great science fiction and fantasy, or SFF, novels ever.

What makes her book so great is its focus on reading, or rereading, older books, whether a few years older or many decades older. Tor.com specifically asked her to write about older books in a blog series that began in 2008; the 130 essays here come from that blog. Her opinions and enthusiasm stand apart from the product-selling-urgency that often seems inherent in discussions of new books.

What makes Walton’s book so great is that she seems to have read everything, from books even casual SFF readers will have heard of, including George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire,” Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Left Hand of Darkness” and Octavia E. Butler’s “Kindred,” to obscure and out-of-print books, such as Dorothy Heydt’s “The Interior Life” and Molly Gloss’ “The Dazzle of Day.” As good as she is on the well-known books, you really want to read her on the less familiar ones: Your library and used bookstore list will start growing immediately.

What makes her book so great is that she wanders outside the hedges of SFF for thoughts about “Middlemarch,” Anthony Trollope and other mainstream writers. Like many strong readers, she doesn’t live in a genre silo.

What makes “What Makes” so great is that Walton, writing blog posts and consciously spurning the formal role of critic, writes whatever she wants about these books without worrying about formally summing the books up. So reading C.J. Cherryh’s “Downbelow Station” (1981) leads to a Walton piece called “Knights Who Say ‘F***’: Swearing in Genre Fiction.” You don’t get that kind of thing from James Wood.

What makes her book so great, for me personally, is that Walton’s enthusiasm finally moved me to read Lois McMaster Bujold’s long-running Vorkosigan series of novels. I’d seen them around for years, without any clue about where to start or what they’re about. Walton broke through that inertia for me. (It turns out they’re smart space opera, combining military sci-fi and romance in some highly entertaining ways.) Fifteen of her posts collected here are about Bujold’s books, and other pieces reference them.

What makes Walton’s book so great is that she was born in Wales and now lives in Canada, so she brings a viewpoint that’s in English but not American to what she reads, including novels set in America. It’s a pleasurable small thing for me, but then Walton is the champion of small things that make reading fun.

What makes Walton’s book so great is that she has the depth of reading and the chops to consider series of books as series. “I love series because when I love something I want more of it,” she states. Walton has thoughts about things like reading in publication order vs. internal chronological order, series with closure, series without closure, series in which the books are independent of each other, “the joy of an unfinished series” and what a bad book can do to a series. Thinking about a series as a series isn’t just an SFF thing: it applies to mysteries, historical fiction (Walton mentions Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series several times) and even mainstream literary fiction: John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom novels are, after all, a series.


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