What Makes This Book So Great is a collection of essays by SFF author Jo Walton, originally published on tor.com, on her prolific re-reading habit. For the most part, each essay concentrates on a single novel, usually an SFF classic, thinking about what exactly makes the text work and why on, a personal level.
Now, re-reading is a topic that seems to divide the internet book community: for some it’s a waste of the finite amount of reading time we have on this green earth; for others it’s a lifeline and a way of life. Walton, obviously, falls into the latter category. For her, reading something just once is a waste of time, and a response to a book you’ve only read once is suspect at best.
Walton attributes this to the fact that she started reading when she was “very young” and there was a finite supply of books at home – making re-reading practically a necessity. “I so deeply internalised this state of things,” she goes on, “that [a tor.com commenter’s] “so many books out there” still doesn’t feel normal – it feels delightful, it feels like putting one over on the universe.”
Interestingly (and possibly incidentally) that feels fairly close to my own experience – I too used to re-read practically compulsively, and it’s only since I had the freedom to buy and borrow my own books whenever I wanted to that my re-reading has been reduced to a fraction of my overall reading. There’s something scary about that sheer book plenty: the idea that there will never be enough time to read them all.
There’s possibly something interesting to say about this experience against the wider backdrop of plenty and consumption in the West, but also possibly not. Comparing breadth and depth of reading isn’t necessarily that helpful, because different books demand different kinds of reading.
In any case, I’m not going to argue the point here. Walton’s careful to stress that her viewpoint is just that, a personal viewpoint and not an axiom; she’s never dismissive of how other people read.
In fact, overall, reading What Makes This Book So Great is like discussing books with a very perceptive friend – her voice is chatty and approachable, and has made me want to read several of the series she mentions (Cherryh’s Alliance-Union series, Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan saga, Brust’s Dragaeron books). She’s particularly good at thinking about novelistic structure, and comparing different structures, and looking at what their effects are, which is something I hardly ever manage to do.
The one thing that does strike a wrong note is Walton’s conclusion, apparently written especially for the book, in which she distances her essays from being “criticism”, “because I hate the way that necessary detachment and objectivity seem to suck the life and the joy of reading out of the books critics want to talk about.” Needless to say, I disagree with her assessment: I think the surest sign of bad criticism is that it is dry and joyless. Good criticism is essentially fannish and creative, not destructive, working with the text to exploit ambiguities and forge new, fascinating readings from its elasticities and its crannies. Above all, good criticism is, like Walton’s essays, rooted in personal response – otherwise it’s just posturing, really, and there’s far too much of that in contemporary criticism as it is. The sanity and clarity of Walton’s voice is something that criticism needs.