What Makes This Book So Great – Jo Walton

About the Book

As any reader of Jo Walton’s Among Others might guess, Walton is both an inveterate reader of SF and fantasy, and a chronic re-reader of books. In 2008, then-new science-fiction mega-site Tor.com asked Walton to blog regularly about her re-readingabout all kinds of older fantasy and SF, ranging from acknowledged classics, to guilty pleasures, to forgotten oddities and gems. These posts have consistently been among the most popular features of Tor.com. Now this volumes presents a selection of the best of them, ranging from short essays to long reassessments of some of the field’s most ambitious series.

Among Walton’s many subjects here are the Zones of Thought novels of Vernor Vinge; the question of what genre readers mean by “mainstream”; the underappreciated SF adventures of C. J. Cherryh; the field’s many approaches to time travel; the masterful science fiction of Samuel R. Delany; Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children; the early Hainish novels of Ursula K. Le Guin; and a Robert A. Heinlein novel you have most certainly never read.

Over 130 essays in all, What Makes This Book So Great is an immensely readable, engaging collection of provocative, opinionated thoughts about past and present-day fantasy and science fiction, from one of our best writers.

448 pages (Hardcover)
Published on January 21, 2014
Published by Tor
Check out Jo Walton’s posts on Tor.com

This book was sent to me to review by the publisher.

First things first, this is less of a review, and more of a how-this-book-impacted-me thing.

You know, before I read this book, I didn’t really know anything about Jo Walton besides the fact that she’s one hell of an author. Now that I’ve read What Makes This Book So Great, I understand a bit more about her. She’s not just a great author, but she’s also one incredibly voracious reader.

Voracious might be a bit of an understatement.

What Makes This Book So Great is less of a book that you read for entertainment, and more of a book that you read to celebrate how incredible reading is (and to be honest here, Walton really broadened my horizons quite a bit, and even talked about plenty of books that I’ve never heard of, but have every intention of tracking down).

It’s hard to review this book, because it’s not really a book but a set of essays. In fact, this really isn’t going to be a review. I can’t review something that made me think about how I read so profoundly.

As a person who dedicated an enormous amount of hours to reading, and an enormous amount of hours to running this website, books about reading, by an author who reads so much, is amazingly valuable. Not only is this book full of recommendations, but it really made me think about the roots of the genre, why I love it so much, and why I started this website at all.

Jo Walton reads on a level that I want to read on. She’s deep, and looks at so many different aspects of the book, and she’s also a devout re-reader (I re-read a lot, too, so I felt kinship with that). Regardless of whether or not our tastes are similar (they are, and aren’t), Walton’s stunning essays, and her obvious passion for the genre, really made me want to read differently.

I honestly find myself absolutely stumped as to what to say about this book because it will mean something different to everyone who reads it. We’ll all see different things in it, and it will all make us analyze the genre, our passion for it, and our love of reading in different ways.

For me, Walton made me really think about the reasons I started Bookworm Blues. This website started as a place for me to read, get excited about what I read, and explore the genre in a more hands-on way. For those of us who run websites like this one, reading is more than a hobby. It’s a passion bordering on, perhaps traipsing into, an obsession. It’s less of a hobby and more of a way of life. However, Walton made me realize just how stuck in a rut I can get with my reading. There are so many ways to enjoy a book, and so many ways to think about the books we read. Walton truly made me realize that sometimes, regardless of my level of excitement, I can lose focus of the foundational reason I started this website (excitement and passion), and read different books the exact same way.

I can’t say that Walton ever seems to fall into that trap. Her excitement is obvious and infectious. The books she reads spans a huge and very impressive range. She reads more books in a week than I could ever dream of. You’d think that she’d get burnt out on it, but it doesn’t seem like she does. It seems like reading just fuels her fire, and it has certainly done wonders on her ability to write. I admire her fearlessness when approaching books. I love her passion, and I am envious of the deep, even handed, and fun-yet-scholarly approach to her analysis of what she reads, and the genre in general.

What Makes This Book So Great is a must read for any genre lover. Walton will astound and amaze you. Her essays are poignant. She often talks about details that I’d skip over or miss, and works them into a larger picture that I’d probably not look at quite as intensely as she does. The bottom line? Walton reminds me of why I love reading, and why I love this genre, and why I started running this pipsqueak website in the first place. Walton makes me want to simplify and get back to my reading roots, and, better than that, she makes me want to read differently.

And the real crux of the matter is the fact that this book is going to make Mount To Be Read turn into a transcontinental mountain range, and the best part of it is that Walton will get you excited. She’ll root you back in that passion that first got you started in speculative fiction.

That’s a true gift. I needed something to bring me back to my genre roots, to remind me of my passion, and to give me the insights and ambition to read differently. This is one of those books that I can read again and again, and always find something different in the text. I love books like that. 


4/5 stars

7 Responses

  • I didn’t even know this blog existed, but I’m definitely going to check it out. I’m also probably going to read the book too, if only to find out about more books I haven’t heard of otherwise!

  • So why 4 and not 5 stars?

    • I’m just being nitpicky. Some of the essays didn’t resonate with me as well as others.

  • If you haven’t read “Among Others” yet, I highly recommend it. It’s one of those books that I read at least once a year, as much for the main character’s musing about SFF books as for the actual plot of the book itself. it’s a book that makes me want to read even more, and mentions so many classic SFF books that I haven’t read that I really ought to… I’ve been more than half tempted to join a readalong just so I can experience half the books that Walton talks about in “Among Others,” and I suspect if I read “What Makes This Book so Great,” my TBR list is going to explode even further.

    But yes, long story short, I think you’d enjoy “Among Others,” and I’d love to read your thoughts on it if you get around to reading it someday.

  • Hélène

    There is just this tiny little problem with Jo Walton’s essays : I tend to want to read each and every book she’s writing about… Can you hear my hypocritical sigh?

  • I love her ‘reviews’. You are right, she does make you think about how you read. I particularly enjoy her pieces on genre in general and on reading (how reading SF is a skill you learn, etc). Her observations are really astute.

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