Your Hate Mail Will be Graded, John Scalzi

Tor, 2010 reprint of 2008 original, 368 pages, C$17.99 pb, ISBN 978-0-7653-2711-6

Books often have complicated publication histories, and so it is that the content of Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: A Decade of Whatever, 1998-2008 first existed as blog posts, then as a limited edition book from Subterranean Press before being republished by Tor for the mass market.  It also won a Hugo between the first and second edition of the book: The Tor edition is the first book I’ve seen with the new “Hugo Award” logo printed on the back.

Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded is an attempt to present the best posts of the first decade of John Scalzi’s Whatever blog in book form.  Scalzi is now often best-known as a science-fiction writer, but his blog usually presents a mixture of pop-culture, politics, writing advice, autobiography, takes on the controversies-du-jour and, generally speaking, anything else that catches his interest.  Thanks to a background that includes a degree in philosophy, corporate writing assignments, science-fiction novels and a newspaper column, Scalzi writes in a way that is entertaining no matter the subject.  Whatever presents an addictive blend of clear prose, amusing writing, serious arguments, original reporting and a keen understanding of what keeps a readership coming back for more.

Since I’ve been reading Whatever for about five years, much of the book feels familiar: A number of Scalzi’s best-known pieces, such as the “Being Poor” op-ed [P.297], “10 Things Teenage Writers Should Know About Writing” [P.213] or the trip report from the Creation Museum [P.135] are reprinted here, alongside pieces I had enjoyed at the time but re-discovered while reading the book, such as “I Hate Your Politics” [P.181], “The Lie of Star Wars as entertainment” [P.119] and “Unasked-For Advice to New Writers About Money” [P.253]  Finally, there’s the first half-decade of Whatever that I never got to read in real-time, the best bits of whom are reprinted here, including a “Best (…) of the Millennium” series dating from 1999.

John Scalzi having a lot of experience as a reviewer, it’s no surprise to find him providing hints in his introduction by pointing out the ways in which Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded can be enjoyed: As an early collection of the “blog post” form, as a cultural capsule of the eventful 1998-2008 decade or as pieces of purely entertaining writing.  He’s right on all count, of course: Reading this book is like digging into a bowl of popcorn… it’s difficult to stop before the end.

But as I try to flip back through the book to find specific posts and titles, I am also reminded of the most annoying “feature” of the book: A deliberate lack of organization or, as the back cover boasts, “a decade of Whatever, presented in delightfully random form, just as it should be.”  The pieces aren’t arranged chronologically, thematically or by word count.  There are no sub-headers at the top of the pages, nor anything looking like a table of content or an index.  Want to find that piece that discussed that thing you liked so much?  Start flipping through the book, because there’s no other way to find what you want.  A note at the beginning of the book further states that this is to replicate the Whatever reading experience, but that’s pushing adherence to the blog form a bit too far: Web readers have access to chronological archives and a search engine.  Book readers are, well, stuck with a shapeless mess.  Might as well go to Google and start searching site:scalzi.com because as a reference, Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded is actively hostile to any kind of organization.

This nit-picky bibliographical nit aside, Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded is about as good as the “Collection of Blog Posts” form ever gets.  Scalzi’s writing is compelling even outside the context of a web browser, and the look back at some of his earlier posts show little difference from the latter, more widely-read pieces in terms of sheer reading appeal.  It may even earn Scalzi a few new fans while his current ones wait for his next novel.

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