I read The Nature of Jade, which felt burdened by too many elements— working with elephants, parents getting a divorce, runaway boy with a baby, anxiety disorder. She stitches the chapters together with epigraphs about animal behavior, making them appear connected, but they never add up to one thing, thematically. Like, Fault in Our Stars: mortality. Right at the center, all the time. How can we live, how can we love, why should we love, knowing our days are numbered?

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.