I find it impossible not to like John Scalzi’s public persona. He’s clever, thoughtful, straightforward, and sometimes delightfully wacky. I read Whatever, his blog, regularly, and have for years. I also liked the first collection of writings from it, Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded.
Nevertheless, even though I breezed happily through the new collection, The Mallet of Loving Correction, I liked it less. I can think of four reasons, and only one and a half of them have to do with the book itself. I’m a little surprised at my less-than-glowing recommendation because I had been considering buying the book since it came out, and indeed I finally did get it via a Humble Bundle that I found out about from an entry on Whatever.
Here’s why I liked my experience of reading this collection less than the previous one:
1. I’ve read it all before. This is no fault of the book’s, and no reason to complain. I wanted to own a compilation of writings from Whatever; now I do. The book is precisely what it says on the label.
2. Nevertheless, the more concentrated period from which Mallet drew, as compared to Hate Mail, meant that the entries were of more recent vintage; consequently, the memorable entries were more firmly etched in my memory. Reading them again was more a matter of recollection than rediscovery. I am not sure how the word counts of the two books compare, but Mallet runs 489 pages and Hate Mail runs 368. That’s 1/3 again as many pages over a period that is less than half as long. Some groups need longer than others to put together enough good songs to make a real greatest hits album, and I think that for my taste Whatever would do better with more than four years. Because of the vagaries of publishing, nearly another year, i.e., a quarter of the period covered by the book, also elapsed between its completion as a manuscript and its appearance as a book.
3. One thing that is completely not the fault of the book is that I read it on my laptop from a PDF file. This was a bit of an experiment for me, and I wasn’t very happy with it. I read a lot on the machine, what with writing for a living and all, but it’s usually something shorter than a book. As I read the book, I tended to pop in and out , more as if I were reading a series of articles on the web, and I couldn’t pick it up and carry it with me to various places I wanted to read. For the other books from the bundle, I will have to see if porting them over to a different device improves the experience. (I enjoy my early-generation Kindle; I also have an under-apped tablet and a new, largeish phone that I haven’t tried to use for reading a book.)
4. I was left with the impression that a sizable share of the articles were based on questions or comments from readers. That’s not too surprising, because Scalzi does a week of taking reader requests each year, and he responds to inquiries in posts at his whim whenever. But reading them reminded me of the slightly odd position of the book — blog entries without the comments, and thus missing an important element. Again, Scalzi is up front about what is and isn’t in the book, so none of this is a surprise. One thing I did find peculiar about the book is that it does not have a table of contents. Scalzi notes near the book’s beginning that the items are arranged (mostly) alphabetically by the title of the pieces, which is idiosyncratic but not per se worse than other ways of organizing a non-fiction collection. The lack of a table of contents means that it’s hard to tell at a glance what all is in Mallet, and there’s not a convenient place to look to refresh one’s memory. Because I have an electronic version of the book, I can of course search for something specific, but there’s nowhere to look to get an overview.
As I said at the beginning, I enjoy Scalzi’s writing, I enjoy Whatever, and I breezed happily through the book. Here are links to ten of my favorite pieces from 2008–12 that also appear in the book. They give a good feel for The Mallet of Loving Correction.
Emo: Older Than You Think
The Failure Mode of Clever
It’s Okay Not to Read Me
Lord of the Tweets
Neil Armstrong and Futures Past
Oscar and Me
A Self-Made Man Looks at How He Made It
Things I Don’t Have to Think About Today