Sunday, August 18, 2019

What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton

I am a compulsive rereader. I have a list of books I read every year. Its membership changes every now and then. The Moviegoer, Till We Have Faces and Godric are no longer on it, and Wild Seed, Prater Violet, Peace and Fifth Head of Cerberus have joined it. Pale Fire and Moby Dick remain in place. Of the sixty six books I’ve read this year, I’d read 26 of them before. Certainly the books I’ve read multiple times are the ones that really sink into the mulch of my mind. Walton refers to the first reread as a completion of reading the book, and that really resonated with me. To say a book feels like it could have been written for you is a cliche. Experiences like mine with What Makes This Book So Great are the source of that cliche. A book about rereading books. What could be more in my wheelhouse?

A couple years ago I read Walton’s excellent Among Others, winner of the Hugo and the Nebula, and, though I’m not sure what it was competing against, it definitely was worthy of both. It’s a fantasy novel where the fantasy could be actually faerie magic, or the fantasy in which a troubled person escapes into books, and applies those tropes to bring order to what is happening to her. It is beautiful and unflinching. And due a reread. The narrator of the book seems to have read nearly all the SF of the previous decades. She loves Le Guin AND Heinlein. And apparently, so does Walton.

This is a collection of lightly edited blog posts Jo Walton wrote for about the books (and series!) she’s rereading. She reads at a pace I find daunting. I generally end up at around 100 -120 books a year. Based on the dates of the posts and her descriptions of her reading habits she’s probably around 400 a year. This would be an unbelievable pace, except that I’ve read a lot of the books she covers, and she has incredible insight into them. (And the fact that I have a couple of friends who read that fast.) My tastes run bleaker than hers, and I like several other genres as much as I do SF, but the addiction to books and the sense that she’s more of an enthusiast than a critic really made me identify with her.

During the period she wrote these essays she read Nova by Samuel Delaney twice. That’s a great book, as is Babel 17 which she also covers. Both are due rereads, and I think she pushed me over the top into finally reading his Dhalgren. It was a little tough getting through 40 pages on a series I hadn’t read, but her love for Lois McMaster Bujold may have pushed me into reading her. She points out how Bujold and William Gibson came out at the same time, but Gibson gets all the critical attention, despite Bujold’s multiple Hugos. She talked about Butler’s Kindred, Stephenson’s Anathem, Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (all of which I love) and a lot of books I haven’t read. This is a great collection. I don’t know if I’d reread the whole thing, but I will be referring to it often for suggestions and to see if I agree with the books she loves when I get around to them.


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