Those who listen to podcasts may know John Green as a reviewer of all kinds of topics, from Canada geese to Dr. Pepper soda. I know him as the author of young adult books, because most of my grandchildren read and loved “The Fault in Our Stars.”
This spring Green published a collection of 44 short essays definitely for grownups, “The Anthropocene Reviewed.” I guessed “anthropocene” meant the age of man, but more accurately, it’s the geologic period in which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and environment.
Green writes about man’s negative impacts on Earth and also about the awesomeness of nature in spite of us. But the essays, each of whose subjects Green rates with a number of stars, cover such a range of subjects that they outgrow their titles. I found Green’s intellectual curiosity, sense of humor, vulnerability, and philosophical questioning both interesting and inspiring.
Green writes that over the past few years he had lost his balance—literally when he was stricken with labyrinthitis and figuratively when his attention became “fractured” and his world “so loud.” He recalled the words of a mentor and friend: “For anyone trying to discern what to do with their life: Pay attention to what you pay attention to.” The subjects for his podcasts, which turned into some of the essays in this book, are where Green could focus his attention, and putting himself into them, at his wife’s suggestion, gives his reviews the added dimension of memoir.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the book is the variety and randomness of topics. In almost every essay there is something to learn—the history of Halley’s comet, the evolution of “The Great Gatsby,” how the keyboard came to have the home row of keys that it does, the truth about velociraptors of “Jurassic Park,” food from a famous hot dog stand in Iceland, how “The Sound of Music” came to be a musical, what is the biggest ball of paint. Each of these topics is well researched, with numerous quotes from authorities on the subject. I found it surprising how fascinating such random subjects can be.
While the information is interesting in itself, it is made more so by the personal connection Green has with each topic. The song “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from “The Sound of Music” helped Green cope with the pandemic. He says despite the most obvious imagery of the lyrics and the fact that at the end of a storm we more often find downed power lines and strewn tree branches than a golden sky, the repetition of “walk on” brought comfort to him that we can keep going and that, although it may seem so, we are never truly alone.
The hot dog that brought “among the most joyous culinary experiences of my life,” was eaten on a trip with his wife and another couple. While Green’s style of travel is to psych himself up to do one thing and then spend the rest of the day recovering, the other couple try to “suck the marrow out of life and make the most of their brief flicker of consciousness.” He had to adjust, and he found unexpected joy. The typewriter is important to Green because as a kid he had terrible handwriting. Becoming a whiz at typing brought him some confidence and masked his insecurities. “When I could no longer bear to be myself, I was able to become for a while a series of keys struck in quick succession.”
Some of the essays are more directly personal, and he often comments on the power—and fraudulence—of memory. The song “New Partner,” Green says, is not just a song for him, but a kind of magic because: “It has the ability to transport me to all the moments I’ve heard the song before. For three minutes and fifty-four seconds, it makes me into people I used to be.”
He describes five of those times he was a different version of himself. At times, Green says, he has played the What’s Even the Point game, which leads him into a despair that isn’t very productive because “all despair can make is more of itself.” He tries to believe, which a friend once told him contains “be” and “live.” Walking in a forested park with his children, he is awed by an immense American sycamore tree, feeling “the solace of its shade, the relief it provides.” Both “New Partner” and “Sycamores” are the rare reviews to which Green awards five stars.
What I found inspirational are Green’s admission of his vulnerabilities and his quest for meaning. He reveals that he is often incapacitated by grief and anxiety and suffers from OCD. Yet his resilience is clear. He describes his times of darkness but also all the ways in which he helps himself out of those dark places. One of those ways is through words. The book is filled with quotations he has found meaningful, many of them from a friend and mentor or his younger—and they both agree wiser—brother, and many from novelists, songwriters, and poets. Green is seeking to know “how to make meaning and what meaning to make.” He is at times consumed by the inevitability of his not surviving, his being as Mary Oliver put it, “part of the everything else.” Using an image from Robert Frost, Green says, “Like ice on a hot stove, we must ride on a melting Earth, all the while knowing who is melting it.” But, “What an astonishment to breathe on this breathing planet. What a blessing to be Earth loving Earth.”
The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet, by John Green (Random House, 2021)