Illustration by Ben Beechener
I am not a reader of nonfiction. It’s one of my greatest weaknesses as a reader. The world around me is interesting, but there is nothing relaxing about trying to understand physics or the suffering of mankind right before bed; and so I avoid nonfiction like the plague.
The exception to this rule is John Green’s latest book, his first work of nonfiction, The Anthropocene Reviewed. Published in May of this year, and based on his podcast of the same name, this is a collection of personal essays in the form of reviews on a five-star scale. Green reviews everything from his undying love for Diet Doctor Pepper, to the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. But the essays are always about something more: Doctor Pepper is about joy, chemicals and capitalism; the hot dog eating contest is about community, and how communities become bigoted against outsiders. There’s something compelling in his ability to shift between the tragic and the beautiful. Even the chapter titles do this: going from Diet Doctor Pepper, to Velociraptors, to Canada Geese, is a hilariously bizarre series of transitions.
The book is at times heavy. It was turned from podcast into book during the pandemic, and it shows. The book is concerned in a big way with disease, sickness, isolation, and with the things that have gotten us all through the pandemic: love, family, good memories, the little things. As a rule, I avoid pandemic-centric media, preferring to forget about the calamities of the last two years in my reading. But even the pandemic is made compelling in the book.
John Green himself has joked that when explaining the book, he always talks about these big ideas and concepts, and then adds at the end – “and also it’s funny.” And it really is funny.
He shares a story about how his friend taught him about marginal utility in terms of Zima, a drink which as far as I can tell is essentially the Alabama boarding school equivalent of the British teenager’s Smirnoff Ice. He insists that the opening scene of the children’s movie Penguins of Madagascar is one of the greatest in all of movie history. This is not a book to be taken too seriously, or to expect to be nothing but drearily profound: if that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll be disappointed when two separate essays are dedicated to hot dogs (stands selling them in Coney Island, and the eating of them in Reykjavik).
I’ve followed John Green’s work since 2013, and my love for his work has gone through a resurgence recently. I’ve been watching old vlogbrothers videos, all the way back to Brotherhood 2.0 and their Night of Awesome at Carnegie Hall – which Kimya Dawson and The Mountain Goats played. Seriously, that’s the coolest thing ever. But more than just being cool, this is a nostalgia that I’ve needed lately. The world is too much, and I am tired. I want to go back to a time when I was that excited about a stupid four minute video on YouTube.
Reading a John Green book feels nostalgic to me. When I was a thirteen year old who had no clue what my teenage years would look like, he told the stories I needed to hear, about friendship and loss and love. He has a knack for capturing the messes and failures of human life, and how love ties all the mistakes together. He does this when Augustus, Hazel Grace and Isaac go egg a girl’s car; he does this when Pudge and the Colonel pull off the end of year prank Alaska never got to see. In a very different way, he does it with The Anthropocene Reviewed, looking at human mistakes, his own mistakes, but also the wonder and love that is behind it all. He examines himself as a college boyfriend desperate to hold onto his relationship, himself as a man in his twenties in the midst of a breakdown, himself now as a father of two in Indianapolis. By following him, and his mistakes and loves, we follow ourselves through our own, and even let him lead us to our own. I love the band The Mountain Goats because of John Green, and I love the movie Harvey because of John Green. He has been a solace when I had no friends, and a touchstone when I had them.
The best essay in the book, in my opinion, is on the Academic Decathlon, a competition in which 3 A grade students, 3 B grade students, and 3 students with grade C or less, compete in different categories of school subjects. The essay moves from high school anxiety, to high school confidence, to adult anxiety. “I wish I wasn’t so scared all the time,” Green writes, “scared of the virus, yes, but there is also some deeper fear: the terror of time passing, and me with it.” But time doesn’t drag you with it alone: it lets you take what you’ve learned, the love you have felt, and the memories you care about most. Green remembers drinking with his friends on a hotel roof after their school placed sixth nationally in the Academic Decathlon. “New York City glowed pink in the distance,” he says, “we were getting just the right amount of utility out of our Zimas, and we loved each other.” The memory John Green has brings me back to being seventeen, drinking WKD and worried I’d somehow get too drunk off it, sitting in Alexandra Palace and watching the sun set with the best friends I had ever had. Like John Green remembering the hotel, “the memory still holds me together.”
I am a creature made entirely of nostalgia. It’s one of my greatest weaknesses as a person. I’ve yet to find out if it’s a strength too, but at least it’s a feeling that is reflected back to me in The Anthropocene Reviewed.