Yesterday Ellie reminded me that the genius of The Fault in Our Stars is the size of its thematic question, and the grace with which John Green answers it. Thematic question: what’s the point of living if you’re just going to die? Every character in the book grapples with that question in some way, not just the dying girl and the dying boy. The writer they went looking for, shattered by his inability to answer the question. The blind kid’s girlfriend, who left him because she couldn’t stand to think about the question, preferring the illusory comfort of her current health. And of course Anne Frank, fighting for whatever scraps of life were left, believing until the end that her life mattered. That’s what gave the story its power— not boy meets girl, girl loses boy to cancer, but how do we make sense of a world where death will happen?
That seems to be part of why I read: lessons to live by. Help figuring out what it means to be human.
Thoughts that have helped me recently: we read to make sense of our experience, or to help ourselves endure it. Which explains why I loved The Fault in Our Stars. I was impatient to the point of bad-temper with John Green’s plot, which seemed so contrived: girl dying of cancer meets boy dying of cancer and falls in love with life. But I was mesmerized by his language, his respect for his characters, and his deep wisdom about being human. At the moment I need wisdom, most of all.
Today I read Looking for Alaska, another beautiful book by John Green. His characters are richly, unexpectedly specific. He takes his time with them and isn’t afraid to get tangential. Takumi, the Japanese boarding student who raps. Alaska, the girl who loves sex and collects books at yard sales. Miles, who had no friends and spent his life memorizing the last words of famous people. The Colonel, dirt poor and insanely smart, who has memorized, first, all the capitols of all the countries of the world, and then all of their populations. I learn: you don’t need as many details as you think to bring a character vividly to life.