Thursday, February 06, 2014

What Makes This Book So Great?

That’s the title of a new book by SF and fantasy author Jo Walton. This collection consists of 130 of her blog posts on books and reading from Most of the reviews discuss older works; her overall theme is rereading. This is a fascinating book to dip into. Who could resist essay titles such as “The Weirdest Book in the World” and “The Worst Book I Love: Robert Heinlein’s FRIDAY”? Walton writes about some of my favorite authors, e.g., Heinlein, Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, Connie Willis; some writers toward whom I’m lukewarm; and many I’ve never read. There are essays about such topics as cursing in genre fiction (“The Knights Who Say F—k,” except that she spells out the word) and how to talk to a writer (mostly on what not to say). What I like most, though, are the articles on reading in general. She asks whether we “gulp” or “sip,” meaning whether we demand an unbroken chunk of time to enjoy a book or pick it up and consume it in small bits throughout the day. She talks about the joys of rereading—familiar books as comfort food. I agree with her on the point that sometimes we crave a reading experience we know we’ll find satisfying, rather than taking a chance on a new work that might disappoint. Best, for me, is a book I remember well enough to know I liked it but recall little enough that rereading holds surprises.

Or, as Walton lucidly summarizes it in a post about “the right age to read a book”: “I actually prefer re-reading something to reading it for the first time. The first time there’s a certain amount of anxiety about whether it’s going to stay good, and also about what’s going to happen. On a re-read I know I can relax and trust the book.”

Occasionally I feel as if I’m indulging in a guilty pleasure when I return to a favorite book, because of the new materials waiting for attention in my bedroom stack and on the Kindle. I still sometimes have to remind myself that I finished college and graduate school many years ago, so nobody is timing or grading me.

Other topics: Walton discusses the difference between genre and mainstream and between literary criticism and what she sees herself as doing. She contemplates the appeal of series and differentiates the various types of series. She muses on why she rereads books she doesn’t like. She asks, “Do you skim?” Her position is that on first reading one shouldn’t skip the “boring” parts, because an important plot or character clue might lurk there. I must admit I sometimes skim “action” or fight scenes.

Most appealing to me, she confesses her habit of constant reading. She’s always reading whenever she isn’t doing anything else (and sometimes even then)—during meals eaten alone, in the bath, in lines and waiting rooms. She carries a book with her everywhere and uses any idle minutes to read. I’m glad to discover I’m not the only one. I read while eating, of course. I read during TV commercials and a little during the shows themselves. I constantly have at least three books or magazines in progress, one each for the bedroom, the bathroom, and the stationary bike (the last doubles as occupation for the five minutes or so, twice a day, I’m waiting for the dog to empty her food bowl). Anytime I’m in a car that somebody else is driving, I’m reading. And even if I’m the driver, I often bring a book in case the passenger wants to make a stop somewhere. On public transportation, of course I have to carry a supply of reading matter. Some people seem to think I’m peculiar that way. In the legislative editing office, where we worked in pairs, my partners often marveled that I could pick up a book or magazine and read (and retain) a paragraph or two while the partner briefly left the cubicle. Even my father, who also loved books, thought I was odd for reading on a tour bus instead of constantly watching out the window. (As exciting as it was to visit Eastern Europe, after a few hours one mountain or horse-drawn wagon looks a lot like all the others.)

Happily, Walton vindicates my literary habits. She might even agree with the motto on the button I bought at a con that reads, “Of course I have a life. It’s a life filled with books.” So—am I weird?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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