Millennials and young adult John Green have a long history together. For anyone who grew up in the early days of Tumblr, reblogging grainy film photos of liminal spaces with out of context quotations, Green and his work were likely a familiar presence. In 2005, Green wrote the YA novel “Looking for Alaska,” and inadvertently helped draw the blueprint for what would later on be called the “manic pixie dream girl,” or MPDG. (The term would come up two years later, when critic Nathan Rubin first used it in his review of the romance drama “Elizabethtown” starring Kristen Dunst and Orlando Bloom.)
The manic pixie dream girl is often described as an attractive, offbeat female character who helps catapult the male protagonist into working on his personal journey. At the same time, she has no actual growth for herself within the confines of the story. Throughout his career, Green would go on to write versions of the manic pixie dream girl in his books — albeit, in a critical manner at times, such as in his 2009 book “Paper Towns” when Margot Spiegelman, the MPDG in question, actually says that she is, in fact, not a manic pixie dream girl. But Green’s books would later on join the ranks of Stephen Chbosky’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” and Jerry Spinelli’s “Stargirl” as some of the best examples of YA novels with classic MPDG characters. This is undoubtedly one of the millennial generation’s greatest (or worst?) contributions to literary history.
But perhaps what is John Green’s best known work is the wildly successful “The Fault in Our Stars,” the 2012 book about two teenagers with chronic illness who fall in love. In 2014, a commercially successful film version of the book would be made starring Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, catapulting a subgenre of YA fiction called “sick lit,” covering topics chronic illnesses (“Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl” by Jesse Andrews) and mental health (the controversial “13 Reasons Why” by Jay Asher). Andrews' and Asher's books would eventually have film and television adaptions of their own.
The quality of writing is extremely subjective, of course, especially when an adult rereads books meant for teenagers. A lot of the memorable lines and moments in Green’s novels may not have aged well (“Maybe ‘okay’ will be our always” did not mean anything to me in 2012 nor in 2021), but for better or worse, his impact on young adult literature helped shape an entire generation. John Green’s work is an essential part of this age of the internet. And for that, I give his young adult books two and a half stars.
It feels necessary to precede a review of Green’s latest book, a work of nonfiction, with a brief review of his older work. In “The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human Centered Planet,” Green himself writes brief reviews about various phenomena that has existed throughout human history (also known as the Anthropocene) and assigns a value on them based on a five-star scale. The book is an offshoot of a podcast that Green began in 2018, in which he focuses on one object, event, or person and discusses their merits in depth. At the end of each piece, Green passes judgment based on his own criteria. Halley’s Comet gets four and a half stars, Diet Dr. Pepper gets four stars, and CNN gets two stars.
What’s perhaps most engaging in “The Anthropocene Review” is seeing Green write in his own voice for the first time. In his virtual interview with local bookstore Fully Booked last August 13, Green shares, “When I’m writing novels, the voice I try to find is not mine. What do I sound like in telling these stories?”
“The Anthropocene Reviewed” followed a period in which Green describes as a “midlife crisis” — in the same virtual interview, he says that after the release of his 2017 book “Turtles All the Way Down,” “I only had one dream job, and I realized that it wasn’t fulfilling me for a number of reasons.” He would later on find his groove back in writing nonfiction, which would become his latest work.
Green’s books have become such a fixture in popular culture that it’s become bigger than the books themselves; we then forget why his writing has been loved by millions for all these years. In “The Anthropocene Reviewed,” Green reminds us just why. Finally writing as himself, he reveals an essayist voice that is much like his YouTube vlog persona. It’s the same voice he employed as the host of Mental Floss Magazine’s YouTube channel from 2013 to 2018, where he would discuss interesting facts about a particular subject, presented in a list format. This is Green at his most vulnerable, most personal, and most engaging. Each review within the book is brief, but he painstakingly combs through history to justify the stars he will later on give the subject at hand.
There are some moments where it feels that Green’s writing really soars, and that’s when he grounds a particular phenomenon into something deeply personal. In his review of sunsets (five stars), Green talks about how his dog used to turn on his belly as a sign of deep trust, and how that frightened him about revealing his own vulnerabilities.
“There is something deep within me, something intensely fragile, that is terrified of turning itself to the world,” Green writes. I openly wept as I read this passage. “I’m scared to even write this down, because I worry that having confessed this fragility, you now know where to punch. I know that if I’m hit where I am earnest, I will never recover.”
Green the essayist is not quite like Green the novelist — the writer is truly at his best when he is simply himself, and it shows in how he introspects about the most random things that have existed throughout history. “The Anthropocene Reviewed” is as much about the greatness of human beings as well as its failings, and through Green’s limited worldview, there is much to celebrate. The book’s essence is perhaps best summarized in his review of Humanity’s Temporal Range (four stars), in which he talks about how humans have only existed for a blink in time. The Earth has persisted through billions of years of evolution. As apocalyptic as everything feels right now, life will go on somehow. Maybe not without us, sadly, but that is just the hubris of the human being. It’s a comforting thought, at least for me.
I give “The Anthropocene Reviewed” four stars.
“The Anthropocene Reviewed” is now available at Fully Booked.