Up until two days ago, I could not remember the last time I read a book that made me cry.
And I don’t just mean marking your place in a novel for a moment while you wipe a single tear away and soldier on. I mean the kind of crying where you put the book down or pause the audio, stare at what’s in front of you without really seeing it and just losing yourself in the sadness, or joy, or maybe a strange mix of both.
I should have known John Green would be the one to break me.
Apologies, Mr. Green sir, for underestimating your ability to wreck me with words. I will not make that mistake again.
The book was, of course, The Anthropocene Reviewed, the latest book but first nonfiction work to emerge from the captivating mind of the author of some of the best books I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.
The essay? “Googling Strangers.” First sad, then unbearably heartbreaking. Then so happy, so hopeful that you just —
Or, at least, I did. I am not a parent afraid to lose a child, I am not a doctor terrified of losing a patient, I am not a helpless chaplain forced between the two parties to offer a sense of hope neither side particularly desires amidst the chaos.
And yet, somehow, I find the story as relatable as if I’d been there, or I’ve been in a similar unforeseen trial of terror. Which I haven’t. Yet. Which I hope never to be. Fingers crossed.
What you must understand about Green’s work, if you’ve for one reason or another been deprived of it for the entirety of your life so far (I am so sorry), is that on the surface, his prose is a masterclass in the power of language. Sentences strung together often sound like poetry. Environments are depicted as clearly and elegantly and clearly as if you’re standing in them. It is beautiful to read, and often nearly impossible to put down.
But that is only a shallow introduction to the brilliant expertise of Green’s words — not just the words themselves, but also the raw, often heart-stopping realism they pour unapolologetically onto the reader.
You may not be the couple told their child may not survive the night, or Hazel facing the harsh truth that she has given herself to someone who will not be with her forever, or Alaska disappearing into the night desperate to repent for a past she cannot change.
But at the same time you are all these characters in all these stories. Because that is what Green writes about. Not love, not sacrifice, not accepting loss or learning to love oneself despite the various labyrinths of darkness within which they are trapped.
Not just one or all of those things, but everything. Green’s writing is the human experience personified. But further than that even still, the universal experience of being unwell, of feeling different, of grasping at any sense of normalcy you can find only to realize “normal” is a construct and you are exactly as you should be, save for the coping mechanisms you might use — healthful or otherwise — to adapt to a world who has yet to understand that.
Green does not coat his truths in words that sound better or brighter than they are. But his sentences are painted in honest, vibrant colors that speak not only to the existential dread of being alive, but also to the reality that if we look hard enough, we can find the small daily joys that make the sun worth waking up for.
The author has spoken on many occasions about his mental health, and though such familiar experiences carry over into his stories, the methods in which they’re characterized in his prose are both brutally honest and delightfully uplifting.
It took until Anthropocene for me to realize that it’s not just Green’s writing itself that has stuck with me all these years, but more importantly the beauty with which he discusses tragedy. Perhaps if you’re an escapist you don’t want sad endings or the kind of melancholy that hangs over your head for days after a book tugs so forcefully at your soul that you feel almost violated.
But I read to feel as much as I write to express such feelings, and I therefore cannot help but attach myself faithfully and eternally to a body of work that promises to break me only by telling me the things I’ve so long tried not to hear.
The Anthropocene Reviewed, much like the podcast from which it began, is a collection of true stories that depict life on Earth from an impressive variety of angles. When you’re not a confused tourist in Iceland you’re a bird singing a melody that will never be refrained. After you’ve been transported into the mind of someone preparing for their first COVID-19 vaccine, you can then feel what it’s like to stare at your front lawn and wonder why any of us even bother.
I can only describe the feeling that washed over me upon finishing this book as a strange hybrid of sadness and wonder. Downcast because the book was over (I finished it in one day) but curious as to all the other stories Green might one day tell.
In the meantime, I suppose I’ll have to settle for continuing to chip away at the rest of my TBR pile, and crafting my own windows into the world we’re all wandering through.
To me, one good measure of a book worth rereading (I am not a re-reader, but I do make occasional exceptions) is how deeply it plants a desire within me to write as if tomorrow will never come.
As I have struggled to stop writing in the two days since I finished this book, I can therefore conclude it was even better than I expected it to be.
I give Green’s latest masterpicee 5 stars.
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is an editor, writer, book reviewer, podcaster, and photographer. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about nonsense and Star Wars.