Jo Walton, What Makes This Book So Great: Re-Reading the Classics of Fantasy and SF

Jo Walton, aside from being the author of Among Others, and the Small Change books Farthing, Ha’ Penny and Half a Crown, has been engaging in online conversations about really good books since UseNet, at least. When Tor decided to create Tor.com as a place to talk about books, founding editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden prevailed upon Jo Walton to contribute essays about books she was re-reading.

walton_what_makes_this_bookIn 2014 Tor published a set of 130 selected essays from Jo Walton’s first three years of meditations about books and reading were published as What Makes this Book So Great. The original columns are still available at tor.com, but this selection of 130 of the pieces from Walton’s first three years (or more exactly July 2008 — February 2011) makes for a wonderful survey. The essays are each independent in the sense that you can read one in isolation, or out of publication order, but really, they form a long meta conversation and mediation on books and reading and SF/F as Walton ranges over a wide swathe of SF and F (and other books), re-reading and examining why these books are so very amenable to re-reading, and why, sometimes, they aren’t.

I should perhaps confess at the onset that I’m one of those people who re-reads, and not just because I’m planning to teach a particular text, but because I like to re-read. As Walton herself explains in “2. Why I Re-Read”:

When I re-read, I know what I’m getting. It’s like revisiting an old friend. An unread book holds wonderful unknown promise, but also threatens disappointment. A re-read is a known quantity. . . . Because I know what’s coming, because I’m familiar with the characters and the world of the story, I have more time to pay attention to them. I can immerse myself in details and connections I rushed past the first time and delight in how they are put together. I can relax into the book. I can trust it completely. I really like that.

And because Jo Walton’s had time to immerse herself, we benefit from reading these wonderful meditations on some super books, ranging from Adams and Bujold and Brust and Cherryh to Sayers, Tiptree, Vernor Vinge and Zelazny, with numerous authors in between. Having said that, Walton has some particularly astute things to say about both C. J. Cherryh and Steven Brust’s books.

Re-readers have re-reading habits, as Walton notes, in “8. Re-reading long series,” about re-reading a series “like Cherryh’s Alliance/Universe or Atevi books, or Brust’s Vlad books, or Bujold’s Vorkosigan books,” and especially, re-reading the preceding volumes in a series of books when a new one is about to come out. I’ve re-read Cherryh’s entire Atevi/Foreigner series each March for several years now, as the new volumes tend to come out in April (# 17, Vistor is coming out from DAW in April, 2015). As Walton notes:

re-reading a series like that is like embarking on a voyage, because you have many volumes in front of you. When you set off, you know you’re committing yourself to a long time in the world, you’re launching yourself into something you know is good and absorbing and is really going to last.

There are also new books and authors to be discovered via What Makes this Book So Great; for instance, Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was (St. Martin’s 1983/Del Rey, 1985), a book that has been recommend now by two very astute readers, or Daniel Abraham’s Long Price books, equally unknown and intriguing. Or Keri Hulme’s The Bone People, which Walton describes as “a story about a colonised people getting their spirit back, and getting it back in a way that is itself uniquely theirs but does not exclude.”

There’s the delight of the familiar and loved book that someone else loves here, too, for instance, in a lovely piece on Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin: “17. College as magic garden: Why Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin is a book you’ll either love or hate.” Walton has, I think, put her metaphorical finger precisely on why people are so very binary about Dean’s Tam Lin>. “It isn’t just a book you like better when you re-read it, it’s a book that you haven’t had the complete experience of reading unless you’ve read it twice.” There are smart essays here about other genres, and lit fic authors, too, among them George Eliot, Salmon Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and Sayer’s Gaudy Night, and authors I haven’t thought about in years and need to re-read (S.P. Somtow).

Re-reading isn’t all ways pleasurable. There’s that special pain from a series that starts out well, but doesn’t continue; see Walton’s “33. Better to have loved and lost? Series that go downhill.” And perhaps one of the best things I’ve ever read about re-reading anything, Walton’s “124. The Suck Fairy” in which Walton explains:

The Suck Fairy is an artefact of re-reading. If you read a book for the first time and it sucks, that’s nothing to do with her. It just sucks. Some books do. The Suck Fairy comes in when you come back to a book that you liked when you read it before, and on re-reading — well, it sucks.

This is a wonderful, marvelous book, and I say that having read most of it on Tor.com before publication, and having just read the entire thing again from cover-to-cover. One of the things that makes this book such a joy is one of the things I most love about Walton’s Among Others, the idea that books (texts) endure, that we can enjoy repeatedly and share with others and be excited and engaged entranced by the act of reading all over again. In the very last essay, “130. Literary criticism vs talking about books” Walton write:

You may also have noticed a lack of critical detachment. I am talking about books because I love books. 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.

That to me is the essence of writing about books and talking about them with others. It’s certainly the way I feel about What Makes This Book So Great, and I very much hope that there’s another collection soon.
d(Tor, 2014)

Jo Walton has a website. She’s also on livejournal and Twitter as @BluejoWalton. You can find her posts on Tor.com, and there’s even a searchable index of all Jo Walton’s Tor.com posts.

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She plays o' the viol-de-gamboys, speaks three or four languages word for word without book, hath all the good gifts of nature, knows a hawk from a handsaw, and can see a church by daylight. The rest is subject to fancy.

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