What Makes This Book So Great

what makes this bookSo, what makes What Makes This Book So Great so great? (Ask me if I’ve been waiting to write that line.) Well, first, let’s get clear exactly what it is: it’s a collection of blog posts that Jo Walton wrote for Tor.com, and the subtitle is Re-Reading the Classics of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Essentially, this book is what this blog is, and what many of my favorite book blogs are: it’s someone who’s a Constant Reader (and I do mean Constant, more on that in a bit), telling other readers about some of the books she has loved for years and goes back to all the time and wants everyone to have the chance to read. It’s appreciation, in the best sense: not blind to faults or to how time may have changed our reading of these books, but enthusiastic about the wonderful ideas and writing and characters they offer, and can offer again and again to a re-reader.

It took me a little while to get into the rhythm of the book. These are blog posts, not essays, so each piece is short — about three pages long. Walton usually gives a plot summary (though she tries to avoid major spoilers in most cases), and then gets into what, to her, is obviously the fun part: discussion of What Makes This Book So Great. Again, this is appreciation, not criticism — in some cases, Walton is all but gushing over the interesting way an author solves a problem, or re-thinks time travel, or has such compelling characters that you don’t notice that the time travel is basically pointless, or whatever. This makes her chapters incredible fun to read, whether or not you’ve read the book in question, whether or not you even have any interest in reading the book. It makes her feel like a friend who has your best interest at heart, someone who’s searching her shelves for the right book for you, something you’re really going to like.

And I liked a lot of them! Science fiction and fantasy aren’t my primary genres, but I read a reasonable dose of them from time to time, and I was pleased to see I’d read about 10% of the books she recommends. I wanted to read at least ten or fifteen more, too, which is a good proportion these days. Her enthusiasm is contagious, and she has the gift of making everything sound interesting.

The bulk of the book is about science fiction. There were certainly pieces about fantasy, but far fewer. There were also two cases where Walton did appreciations of every book in a series, and that was just too many. If you’d already read and enjoyed the series, you might have been nodding along in grinning agreement, but if (like me) you hadn’t, you’d got the sense of what the series would be like by the first book, and didn’t want to read about all of them. Still, there are 130 (!) entries here, so it didn’t really matter; I could skip dozens and there would be dozens more for me to choose from.


Sprinkled here and there among the book-appreciation are a few think-pieces that were interesting and useful (“Do you skim?” “The Suck Fairy” “Literary criticism vs talking about books”.) One of the most interesting, to me, was the piece on reading as feast or famine. Jo Walton says she’s always seen books as a scarcity, as if there will never be enough. This is partly because she’s an extremely fast reader and partly because she’s rather… selective. She claims she could read through an entire local library in a couple of months, considering how many of the books she’s already read, how many genres she doesn’t like, and how many authors she doesn’t enjoy. Re-reading, then, is crucial; she’s read certain books so often that she’s memorized them and can’t really read them any more. This is completely foreign to me. I’m a reasonably fast reader, too, but the idea of ever getting through everything I want to read, even in a modestly-proposed lifetime, is nonsense. Reading is feast; re-reading is luxury, is completeness that I scarcely have time to wallow in.

I also liked the piece on science fiction/ fantasy reading protocols. Walton makes the argument that people who regularly read SF understand how to gather information, pick up clues from worldbuilding, identify what is important and what isn’t. People who don’t regularly read this genre often miss these sorts of protocols, and then, if they make a foray into writing that genre, they create annoying SF, with awkward information-dumps where they don’t belong. Since I’ve seen this happen, it was nice to have the phenomenon named!

I got the recommendation for this book from Jeanne, and all I can say is that I wish there were a whole series of these books out, by all sorts of authors. Collections! Anthologies! I want to know what books everyone thinks are So Great, and why. Louise Erdrich, Margaret Atwood, Nick Harkaway, Marilynne Robinson, Neil Gaiman, Dorothy Sayers, Toni Morrison, Vladimir Nabokov. Everyone. Sock it to me, baby, hit me one more time.

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18 Responses to What Makes This Book So Great

  1. What’s interesting to me about people who say they read really fast is there is no way for me to measure that and compare it to other readers, or to measure how well they read and what they comprehend, which is a whole different ball game from moving your eyes over sentences. Nice review!

    • Jenny says:

      I suspect Walton is a very good reader indeed — she likes taking books apart to see how they work (and so do I.) But fast and slow are indeed very much relative terms when it comes to reading, and part of it has to do with how much time you have to do it.

  2. Deb says:

    Like you, I’m not a huge sf/fantasy reader, but I loved this book (and got quite a few book recommendations from it). I loved her section on “The Suck Fairy”–so true, and one of the reasons I hesitate to reread childhood favorites: was it really as great as I remember.

    Another aspect of the book that really clicked for me was Walton’s provocative theory that post-WWII sf, written primarily by upper-middle-class white British males, focused on destruction of most of the world’s population, thereby absolving the writer from any need to pay attention to the teeming masses. It certainly explains why plague, alien invasions, and environmental catastrophe were such popular mid-century sf tropes.

    • Jenny says:

      I was interested in that theory, too! I wonder how it fits with today’s rash of post-apocalyptic and zombie novels.

  3. I don’t read a lot of sci-fi but this sounds like a great passionate read.

  4. I’m always on the lookout for books about books and this one sounds especially good. Thanks for the lovely review!

    • Jenny says:

      That’s how I felt — I wanted more of these sorts of things. Nick Hornby does a nice line in his books about books, rather like these, but he’s the only other one I know of.

      • The other ones I know tend to be geared towards recommendations – Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust series, The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, and The Complete Review Guide to Contemporary World Fiction by M.A. Orthofer. Some are more essay-y than others but none to the extent of Hornby or Walton here… do I sense an untapped market? ;)

  5. Jeanne says:

    I’m so glad you enjoyed this book! Personally, I think it has seeped into all the reading and writing I do–when I sit down to write about a book, I often tell myself to see it more generously than I otherwise might, to talk about what makes it so great!

    • Jenny says:

      Fortunately, since book blogging, almost everything I read IS great, so I don’t have to worry about that piece of it much. I loved the way she took things apart and showed us all the good pieces. Have you read much from this book, recommendations that you might not otherwise have found? Or had you already read most of it? Or?

      • Jeanne says:

        I read four books after reading Walton’s book, and the best of them might have been Shelter, or Random Acts of Senseless Violence. Most of the books she writes about, I have read, with three series exceptions: I haven’t read Bujold, Cherryh, or Brust.

  6. Seeing books as a scarcity was a thing I used to have too, back in the days before book blogging. Nowadays I’m with you — there’s an infinite variety of books out there, and even if I ran out of fiction (v. unlikely :p), I would never ever EVER run out of nonfiction.

    I don’t read enough science fiction! It’s also tricky because so much of it historically has been written by white dudes and I don’t want to mess up my reading stats, which are beautiful so far this year. :p But I could toss one in here and there, and I do trust Jo Walton to tell me only the best scifi books.

    • Jenny says:

      I try not to feel overwhelmed by how much there is out there to read that’s wonderful that I’ll never ever get to. There’s an index card pinned up over my desk at work that says “I would rather be well-read than dead, but I have a hunch about which will come first.” (Joseph Epstein.)

      These days, there’s more and more SF being written by non white non dudes, so there’s that!

  7. lailaarch says:

    I am with you, Jenny – I want that Margaret Atwood book about books she loves! (The others would be cool too.)

    Interesting re: books as scarcity. I am most definitely NOT of that mindset. I know that I will NEVER get to all the books that sound interesting to me. I’m mostly okay with that, I think. It’s comforting to know that there will always be something good out there waiting for me to pick up.

    • Jenny says:

      I try to find it comforting rather than panicking! At a certain point, I just have to accept it; I haven’t even begun to think about global literature in any serious way, let alone scratch the surface of it. It’s got to be all right, doesn’t it? But the idea of books as scarcity simply doesn’t parse to me.

  8. Stefanie says:

    Isn’t this a fun book? She made me want to read just about everything she mentions. She is so exuberant about things it is hard to not get excited about a book along with her even if I have never read it!

    • Jenny says:

      Yes, I found lots of good recommendations! I agree that it was hard not to get pulled along with her. I think that’s like all the best book blogs!

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