I should preface this review by admitting I’m jealous of Jo Walton. I’m jealous that she reads a book every two or three days. I’m jealous that she has time to actually reread books. I’m jealous that all of this reading and rereading has given her a rich and varied perspective on fantasy literature. I’m jealous that she received a high-profile platform (her posts on the Tor.com blog) to share this perspective. I’m jealous that her pithy and insightful blog posts garnered so much positive attention that Tor collected the best of them into a hardcover book. Not to mention the fact that she’s a brilliant novelist who has won every major award the genre offers.
It feels good to get that off my chest.
Now that I’ve cleared the air, What Makes This Book So Great includes Walton’s best posts from 2008 to 2011. Unlike most book reviews (like the one you’re reading right now), Walton’s pieces here all discuss books that have been out (and even out of print) for some time. Many of them are rather obscure. She has read them all more than once (often a lot more than once). In fact, she frequently discusses how her views on a book change from reading to reading, thus demonstrating the value of rereading old favorites.
As the title makes clear, this is not a book of detached criticism. Every work discussed here is one that struck a nerve with Walton, and her goal is “to turn people on to them.” That doesn’t mean these pieces are all gushingly positive. She points out flaws when she sees them while making the point that these books are nevertheless worth reading (and rereading).
Each of these pieces is clever, insightful and well written. But taken as a whole, the book is unfortunately less than the sum of its parts. These are very good blog posts, but a book is not a blog. As Marshall McLuhan pointed out fifty years ago, the medium in which ideas are transmitted matters.
If asked to review Walton’s blog on Tor.com, I would have nothing bad to say about it. Her approach is perfect for the medium of blogging. Each post is the right length to maintain a web-surfer’s attention. She links to relevant websites and articles. She engages in dialogue with her readers in the comments section. I encourage anyone with an interest in fantasy literature to start following Walton’s posts at Tor.com.
But I can’t recommend shelling out $26.99 for the same material that’s available online for free. It’s not just a question of value. Blogs do things that books can’t. And good books do things that blogs can’t.
For one thing, books allow for deeper reflections than our short online attention spans allow. In book form, these posts just zip by. It is not as if Walton had little to say. At one point, the collection includes fifteen consecutive posts on the work of Lois McMaster Bujold. This was a missed opportunity for Walton to work these somewhat disjointed thoughts into a lengthy meditation. Had her thoughts been presented as a chapter instead of fifteen posts, she would have taken advantage of the book form.
Even if those posts weren’t going to be rewritten into chapters, they could have at least been organized by topic instead of date of original publication. For example, every hundred pages or so, the book includes a piece on Robert Heinlein. The strict fidelity to the original blog makes this book seem like little more than a hard copy backup.
What Makes This Book So Great puts me in a strange position. I enjoyed reading Walton’s ruminations on her favorite books. She’s written a near-perfect blog. But a blog is not a book. By failing to adapt her pieces into the appropriate medium, she doesn’t give the reader much of a reason to turn off the screen and pull this book off the shelf.