The author of “The Fault in Our Stars”, “Looking for Alaska” and other YA blockbusters, John Green is a superstar in the world of young adult fiction. So his latest book, “The Anthropocene Review,” is a bit of a departure – a non-fiction book aimed at adult readers, but with its signature voice. Originally launched as a podcast, the content of the book is a massive, unruly collection of zero to five star “reviews” of everything from sunsets to Lascaux cave paintings to Diet Dr. Pepper.
Q. Why did you structure this book, which in some ways is an essay, as part of a series of reviews?
A. I find that I can only write about my experiences through the prism of other things, even if I am writing in a journal. I started writing these essays because I wanted to be careful what I was paying attention to. I wanted to slow down and make a quiet place in what had become a very noisy world. It’s very different from anything I’ve written. As to why I did it in essay form, rated on a five-star scale, I was trying to respond to that weird moment when everything became a subject of review and we are all critics.
Q. You mention in the book that you previously worked as a book reviewer. What kind of critic were you – soft or hard?
A. I guess it will depend on the author you ask! When I review books, I always try to think about their audience, and whether the book will engage and serve that audience, rather than from a “I know what constitutes good literature and it’s or no.” As a reviewer, I tried to think, “Will this book find its audience? Will he help his audience? I tried to be more empathetic with the reader than with the writer.
Q. The pieces in the book are such an interesting mix – they are very personal and revealing, but they are also well documented. Do you like to do research?
A. I do. I love falling into a world this way, trying to figure things out and trying to bond. Most of my career has been writing fiction, but I’ve been writing non-fiction for a long time, from book reviews to scripts for our educational channel, Crash Course, to writing. Vlogbrothers videos. Over the past 15 years, I have fallen in love deeper and deeper in the process of researching, trying to figure something out, and then figuring out how to tell the story in a way that doesn’t distillate. A lot of times you have to choose which parts of a story you tell, especially if you’re trying to tell the story succinctly or to a larger audience, but the really interesting challenge is how to do it in a way that makes it accessible material. without oversimplifying it.
Q. One thing that runs through the entire book is the global challenge we face with climate change. How do you keep a tone while writing about climate change that will encourage readers to stick with you – you could just howl in the wild and chase everyone away.
A. I fully understand why readers may not want to engage in the big issues we share. It’s a big challenge. I write in the book about how humans are in this strange moment where we have unprecedented power and we are radically reshaping the Earth’s biodiversity and changing the climate. But on an individual level, I don’t feel much of that power as I can’t get my child to have breakfast in the morning let alone choose which species live and die. This contradiction of human power really interests me.
And I felt like it was a way of writing about these great common challenges in a way that hopefully would be accessible and not hopeless. I think it’s very easy to respond to these great challenges that we face with desperation and I don’t blame anyone who responds with desperation. But we have already faced huge challenges and found a way to continue. And I guess I don’t think it’s pollyannaish to say that we’ll keep finding a way to keep going.
Q. Do you have a favorite essay in the book?
A. I guess the one on the sunsets, because [it] is where I was really trying to articulate my feeling about the world and its beauty and the wonder that exists if we pay attention to it – and how hard it is to really strip off the armor of cynicism and irony and to honestly try to reckon with the beauty of the sunset.
Q. What do you hope the reader will take away from this book?
A. I want it to find the people who will care and enjoy it or feel something that they can connect with. Sometimes I go to read and I feel like the book knows a secret about me that he can’t know because I never told anyone. And it will make me feel a lot less alone. The dream is always that someone will feel this way while reading something that you have written. I hope people will take away the fact that attention is a gift. And that our world is full of terrors and injustice and that it is real and it is important. But our world is also full of wonder, awe and hope and this is also real.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Kate Tuttle, freelance writer and reviewer, can be reached at [email protected]