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What Makes This Book So Great? by Jo Walton

What Makes This Book So Great? by Jo Walton
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Book Name: What Makes This Book So Great?: Re-Reading the Classics of Fantasy and SF
Author: Jo Walton
Publisher(s): Tor Books (US) Corsair (UK)
Formatt: Hardcover / eBook
Genre(s): Non Fiction
Release Date: January 21, 2014 (US) January 16, 2014 (UK)

I want to begin my review of What Makes This Book So Great? where Jo Walton ends the book: comparing literary criticism and talking about books. Walton doesn’t like being called a critic. She didn’t study criticism, she doesn’t read with a critic’s detached and impersonal eye, and she doesn’t want to join the more objective conversation among critics. She’d rather rave about a book to a friend on a message board, and be moved to tears when reading. She’s a fan, not a critic, and fans are passionate. And it’s that passion for reading (and re-reading) that makes What Makes This Book So Great? worth reading.

If you are a fan of this site, I can almost guarantee that you consider yourself a big reader. But I don’t know many people who read as voraciously, as widely, or as keenly as Walton. Averaging several books per week and four to six books in a day if she spends it in bed, Walton can cover the science fiction/fantasy section in a typical public library in a matter of months. Perhaps even more impressive, she does this without skimming. And during frequent re-reads, Walton can pay attention to the details, to characterizations, and to connections she may have overlooked during her first read. The result is knowledge of genre that is both deep and wide.

Accordingly, Patrick Nielsen Hayden invited Walton to write about books she was re-reading for Tor.com in 2008 because she was “always saying smart things about books nobody else had thought about for ages.” What Makes This Book So Great? collects about a fifth of those posts from July 2008 to February 2011. Walton covers books published between 1871 and 2008: classics, guilty pleasures, overlooked books, and more.

Ignoring the science fiction novels for the purposes of this review, Walton writes about many fantasy novels, such as Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books, The Hobbit, Stephen Brust’s Dragaera series, Daniel Abraham’s Long Price books, and Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. She also writes about more literary works such as George Eliot’s Middlemarch (Walton asks why couldn’t she have invented science fiction), Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children (and its links to Martin’s Wildcards books), and Lord Dunsany’s short stories (fantasy stories written before there was a thing called fantasy, but his influence is still felt today). She also writes about issues in genre fiction, such as swearing, series that go downhill, and waiting a long time for the next installment in a series (and possibly never getting it) vs. getting a bad installment quickly. And finally, she writes about how she reads, why she re-reads books she doesn’t like, and what separates genre readers from literary readers (and why these different skill sets might keep the two groups separated).

For genre fans who are looking to cast their “to-read” nets wider (or if you are simply tired of hearing the same five names anytime someone asks, “What should I read next?”), the table of contents alone is a gold mine, especially if you are looking for older or harder-to-find books with, as Walton puts it, high degrees of “IWantToReadItosity.” And within each post, Walton will often compare the highlighted novel to two or three other books. Of course, you should use this resource wisely. It’s easy to get out of control. Even Walton, who reads at Flash-like speeds, found herself moving four boxes of unread books. For someone like me who reads at a more tortoise-like speed, I will need to pace my book purchasing, otherwise I risk being found dead, buried under a pile of unread books.

And while it’s always nice to get new recommendations, I don’t think that’s the best part of this book. Instead, it’s the infectious nature of Walton’s love of books. The more chapters of this book I read, the more I wanted to read in general. Unlike some reviewers, I found the brevity of the chapters to be an asset, as it formed a sort of positive feedback loop: the more I read, the more excited I got about reading more.

After reading What Makes This Book So Great?, I think it would be near impossible for a reader, no matter how avid, not to come away with a burning desire to read faster, read more, and read more widely. Not only that, but I found that it made me want to read in a different way. I wanted to read better—to drink more deeply of a book, to be more moved by it, to see the influences of past novels and how it influences future novels, and to see the details and structure and the connections with more clarity. Not to dryly disassemble it like a critic, but to revel in my reading, to love it, eagerly and passionately, like a fan should.

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Rating: 9.3/10 (4 votes cast)
What Makes This Book So Great? by Jo Walton, 9.3 out of 10 based on 4 ratings
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3 Comments

  1. Kristin says:

    YES! Just…YES!

  2. Bibliotropic says:

    I’m about halfway through this one right now (I’ve been reading it slowly over time, since it tends to provoke a lot of thoughts in me that I like to sit and analyse), and between it and “Among Others,” my To Read list has grown dramatically. Walton says some wonderfully intelligent things about a lot of novels and makes me aware that my background in a lot of classic sci-fi and fantasy has been sorely lacking.

    The biggest downside ‘ve found so far is that when there are multiple articles talking about the details of books and series that I haven’t read, it can get a bit tedious. I confess that I’ve skipped some of the articles because I just got tired of reading a bunch of talk about something that was flying so far over my head that it was the furthest thing from interesting. And then the next article was about the same series. And the one after that. Intelligent thoughts and writing, yes, but there’s also a lot here than can easily be lost on someone who isn’t as up-to-speed on these novels as she is.

  3. Simply adored this book and because of it, I’m reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell this weekend.

    But yes, my “To-read” list is (even more) enormous because of it.
    —Kallen

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