The Anthropocene Reviewed Page 1

Author: John Green

Genres: Nonfiction


MY NOVEL TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN was published in October of 2017, and after spending that month on tour for the book, I came home to Indianapolis and blazed a trail between my children’s tree house and the little room where my wife and I often work, a room that depending on your worldview is either an office or a shed.

This was not a metaphorical trail. It was an actual trail in the woods, and to make it I cleared dozens of the prolific and invasive honeysuckle trees that choke much of Central Indiana, and I dug up the English ivy that had taken over, and then I covered the path in wood chips and lined it with bricks. I worked on the path ten or twelve hours a day, five or six days a week, for a month. When I finally finished, I timed myself walking along the path from our office to the tree house. Fifty-eight seconds. It took me a month to build a fifty-eight-second walk in the woods.

A week after finishing the path, I was searching through a drawer for some ChapStick when all at once and without any warning, my balance failed. The world began to roll and spin. I was suddenly a very small boat in very high seas. My eyes shivered in their sockets, and I began vomiting. I was rushed to the hospital, and for weeks afterward, the world spun and spun. Eventually I was diagnosed with labyrinthitis, a disease of the inner ear with a wonderfully resonant name that is nonetheless an unambiguously one-star experience.

Recovery from labyrinthitis meant weeks in bed, unable to read or watch TV or play with my kids. I had only my thoughts—at times drifting through a drowsy sky, at other times panicking me with their insistence and omnipresence. During these long, still days, my mind traveled all over, roaming through the past.

* * *

The writer Allegra Goodman was once asked, “Whom would you like to write your life story?” She answered, “I seem to be writing it myself, but since I’m a novelist, it’s all in code.” For me, it had started to feel like some people thought they knew the code. They would assume I shared the worldviews of a book’s protagonists, or they’d ask me questions as if I were the protagonist. One famous interviewer asked me if I also, like the narrator of Turtles All the Way Down, experience panic attacks while kissing.

I had invited such questions by having a public life as a mentally ill person, but still, talking so much about myself in the context of fiction became exhausting for me, and a little destabilizing. I told the interviewer that no, I do not have anxiety around kissing, but I do experience panic attacks, and they are intensely frightening. As I talked, I felt distant from myself—like my self wasn’t really mine, but instead something I was selling or at the very least renting out in exchange for good press.

As I recovered from labyrinthitis, I realized I didn’t want to write in code anymore.

* * *

In 2000, I worked for a few months as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital. I was enrolled in divinity school and planning to become an Episcopal minister, but my time at the hospital disavowed me of those plans. I couldn’t handle the devastation I saw there. I still can’t handle it. Instead of going to divinity school, I moved to Chicago and worked as a typist for temp agencies until eventually landing a job doing data entry for Booklist magazine, a biweekly book review journal.

A few months later, I got my first chance to review a book after an editor asked me if I liked romance novels. I told her I loved them, and she gave me a novel set in seventeenth-century London. Over the next five years, I reviewed hundreds of books for Booklist—from picture books about the Buddha to poetry collections—and in the process, I became fascinated by the format of the review. Booklist reviews were limited to 175 words, which meant each sentence must work multiple jobs. Every review had to introduce a book while also analyzing it. Your compliments needed to live right alongside your concerns.

At Booklist, reviews do not include ratings on a five-star scale. Why would they? In 175 words, one can communicate far more to potential readers than any single data point ever could. The five-star scale has only been used in critical analysis for the past few decades. While it was occasionally applied to film criticism as early as the 1950s, the five-star scale wasn’t used to rate hotels until 1979, and it wasn’t widely used to rate books until Amazon introduced user reviews.

The five-star scale doesn’t really exist for humans; it exists for data aggregation systems, which is why it did not become standard until the internet era. Making conclusions about a book’s quality from a 175-word review is hard work for artificial intelligences, whereas star ratings are ideal for them.

* * *

It’s tempting to make labyrinthitis a metaphor: My life lacked balance and so I was devastated by a balance disorder. I spent a month drawing a straight line of a trail only to be told that life is never simple paths—only dizzying labyrinths folding in on themselves. Even now I’m structuring this introduction like a maze, coming back to places I thought I’d left.

But this symbolization of disease is exactly what I’ve tried to write against in my novels Turtles All the Way Down and The Fault in Our Stars, where I hope at least OCD and cancer are portrayed not as battles to be won or as symbolic manifestations of character flaws or whatever, but as illnesses to be lived with as well as one can. I did not get labyrinthitis because the universe wanted to teach me a lesson about balance. So I tried to live with it as well as I could. Within six weeks, I was mostly better, but I still experience bouts of vertigo, and they are terrifying. I know now with a viscerality I didn’t before that consciousness is temporary and precarious. It’s not a metaphor to say that human life is a balancing act.

As I got better, I wondered what I would do with the rest of my life. I went back to making a video every Tuesday and a weekly podcast with my brother, but I wasn’t writing. That fall and winter was the longest I’d gone without trying to write for an audience since I was fourteen years old. I suppose I missed writing, but in the way you miss someone you used to love.

* * *

I left Booklist and Chicago in 2005, because my wife, Sarah, got into graduate school in New York. When she finished her degree, we moved to Indianapolis, where Sarah worked for the Indianapolis Museum of Art as a curator of contemporary art. We have lived here ever since.

I read so much at Booklist that I can’t remember when I first came across the word Anthropocene, but it must have been around 2002. The Anthropocene is a proposed term for the current geologic age, in which humans have profoundly reshaped the planet and its biodiversity. Nothing is more human than aggrandizing humans, but we are a hugely powerful force on Earth in the twenty-first century.

My brother, Hank, who started out his professional life as a biochemist, once explained it to me like this: As a person, he told me, your biggest problem is other people. You are vulnerable to people, and reliant upon them. But imagine instead that you are a twenty-first-century river, or desert, or polar bear. Your biggest problem is still people. You are still vulnerable to them, and reliant upon them.

Hank had been with me on the book tour that fall of 2017, and to pass the time on long drives between cities, we’d try to one-up each other with absurd Google user reviews for the places we drove past. A user named Lucas, for example, gave Badlands National Park one star. “Not enough mountain,” he reported.

In the years since I’d been a book reviewer, everyone had become a reviewer, and everything had become a subject for reviews. The five-star scale was applied not just to books and films but to public restrooms and wedding photographers. The medication I take to treat my obsessive-compulsive disorder has more than 1,100 ratings at, with an average score of 3.8. A scene in the movie adaptation of my book The Fault in Our Stars was filmed on a bench in Amsterdam; that bench now has hundreds of Google reviews. (My favorite, a three-star review, reads in its entirety: “It is a bench.”)

As Hank and I marveled at the sudden everywhereness of reviewing on a five-star scale, I told him that years earlier, I’d had an idea to write a review of Canada geese.

Hank said, “The Anthropocene . . . REVIEWED.”

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