Jo Walton’s WHAT MAKES THIS BOOK SO GREAT is a wonderful book, and I wish there were more like them. It’s not a book of reviews, so much as a book of reviews about *re*-reading books, and why she does so; most of the time, though not always, because she loves those books and finds something new in them every time. It’s a book full of chapters to inspire you to seek out the books she talks about, and reconsider those you’ve already read.
(I should mention that the book is a selection of columns she posted at Tor.com from July 2008 to February 2011, but only “about a fifth of the total posts that I made during that time”.)
The striking revelation of the book is that Walton is a constant, obsessive reader, taking a book everywhere she goes throughout the day, and a fast reader. She mentions that some favorite books she reads annually, and that on a day in bed, she can get through 4 to 6 books a day. I find that incredible. (At my best, during my college-year summer vacations, I could get through a 200-page paperback every day. These days, reading more substantial books, novels that are longer than those of 40 years ago and substantial nonfiction that requires patient attention, I feel accomplished to average 2 books per week.)
I’ve taken notes on this book about the books she discusses that she impels me to seek out or reread. At the same time, she has fascinations with authors I’ve sampled whom I have no further interest in — ahem, Bujold, Cherryh, Brust. I skimmed those chapters, and skipped a few (about Brust). (At best I’m inclined to revisit and sample Cherryh, whose first three books I read before moving on, rather as I did with Anne McCaffrey; it seems now, considering Walton’s attention and Russell Letson’s reliable reviews, there is something there in Cherryh I might want to pay attention to.)
Along the way, she has chapters about skimming; about why she rereads books she doesn’t necessarily like; about rereading books she liked earlier but which “suck” in the light of her own maturity or changing social standards; and so on. I almost wish there were more of this — discussion of how and why we read.
p104: “It’s the books I love that are the hardest to write about.”
My thoughts, as recorded part way through this book:
Reading many books, or reading about others who have read many books, is like speaking to many people who have intelligent, informed backgrounds from many different perspectives. You listen to them speak, without having to respond or defend any reasons you might differ in your opinion. Yet the intelligent reader will take everything into account, and continually reformulate their world view to account, or reject, everything, everything, they have read. It’s a continuous process of thinking about the world and updating one’s worldview to take into account all those other viewpoints you have read. It’s a way of expanding one’s consciousness and awareness about the world that would otherwise be limited by personal experience and local circumstances.