It might come as a surprise to many who know John Green primarily as an author of contemporary young adult novels (“The Fault in our Stars”) that his latest release is a work of nonfiction—the subject ostensibly being “the human-centered planet.”
This becomes doubly surprising after the nearly four-year gap between his last novel, “Turtles All the Way Down,” and “The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet” (Dutton, New York, 2021, 293 pages), released on May 18.
“For the past decade, writing for me hasn’t only—or even primarily—been about writing. It’s also about touring and publicity and movie rights, all of which I’m ridiculously lucky to stress about, but which I nonetheless find stressful,” John said in a 2019 Vlogbrothers YouTube video explaining his break from writing fiction.
To his credit, John hasn’t really stopped writing. Anyone who knows him beyond his career as a novelist will no doubt be aware of the aforementioned YouTube channel he has run with his brother, Hank, since 2007, and the mostly scripted videos they put out on a biweekly basis.
Beyond even that is his work as a philanthropist, educator, cofounder of VidCon and production company Complexly, signer of autographs, patron of third-tier English football teams, face of pizza T-shirts and, of course, podcaster.
“The Anthropocene Reviewed” has its origins in the eponymous podcast John has been writing mostly since 2018, with some reviews going even as far back as 2014.
While touring for “Turtles” in 2017, the brothers Green passed the time looking up Google reviews for the places they passed through. John had written reviews for Booklist magazine in his early 20s and had been fascinated by the format since. He told Hank he’d been nursing the idea of reviewing the very idea of things instead of the things themselves and rating them on a five-star scale, things like Canada geese and Diet Dr Pepper. To which Hank characteristically responded, “The Anthropocene … REVIEWED.” And so it goes.
The review-essays touch on an assortment of things—from sunsets to scratch ’n’ sniff stickers to viral meningitis—all in the Anthropocene.
“Anthropocene” is the unofficial designation for the current epoch in the geologic time scale heavily marked by human impact on the planet. And by marks, experts like to throw in everything from industrialization and the atomic bomb, to the climate crisis and global ecosystem collapse.
This notion of mankind’s power is one of the overarching themes of “The Anthropocene Reviewed,” how there could be too much and too little of it. It is a deeply personal meditation on how the vastly colossal cog of the human machine is at once powerful enough to change ambient temperature at will, but not powerful enough to stop a string of proteins from infecting and killing millions of people in the span of a clean 21st-century year. Mankind has power in abundance enough to make decisions on how to reshape the planet’s destiny, but distressingly little control on how those decisions affect life for mankind itself. Let alone life for everything else.
But, for better or worse, people do have enough power to make choices.
“In the Anthropocene, there are no disinterested observers; there are only participants,” says John’s wife Sarah. The score is in making those choices count.
“It is true that our current horrors are precedented. But so is our capacity for care,” John writes. His dogged renunciation of the notion of a bleak ever after ties together the threads of each essay with a raw sort of hope. It is a hope that exults in human endurance without ever indulging in overromanticized sentiments of the silver linings.
Clarity of character
There’s an honesty in his writing, a clarity of character that makes solid his prose, gives it voice and shape. It’s as if he were right there with you, murmuring comfort into your beleaguered ear. To anyone who’s inhabited the pockets of the internet the Green brothers have built, it is a voice as familiar as the desire paths that lead to home.
As much as this book is about the human-centered planet, it is also about John. And while the concept of reviewing random facets of the human experience is thoroughly compelling as it is, the book’s greatest strength lies in John himself.
Sarah says to him, “When people write reviews, they are really writing a kind of memoir.” This is John’s memoir. “The Anthropocene Reviewed” is a repository of his loves, his fascinations, his uncertainties, his fears. To borrow from August Sander (whom John references in the book), it is an attempt to “hold fast” memory, of the moments in his life on this human-centered planet. It is an archive of index fossils from the geologic eons, eras, periods, epochs and ages charting his evolution—from the movie “Harvey” to the world’s largest ball of paint.
John writes without rancor and is never mawkish. He pries himself open, elects finally to not “write in code” with a deliberate and willful vulnerability that at times incites a visceral urge to turn away from the page. And as is typical of John Green fare, it will make you cry.
“I want to fall in love with the world anyway, to let it crack me open. I want to feel what there is to feel while I am here,” he writes in the introduction.
“The Anthropocene Reviewed” is an invitation to find wonder in both the profound and the mundane. Few books will love you harder into this moment, and on into your next. INQ
Available in hardcover from Fully Booked and fullybookedonline.com.