I'm sure we can agree the past five or 10 years of the Anthropocene have seen an increase in the number of ratings we're asked to give each day (on a scale of one through five), as though we've all been recruited as unwilling workers in a star factory. Some days it feels as though the world is constantly quivering in wait for our so-important opinions about absolutely everything, a feeling that makes it clear it doesn't care about our opinions at all, not really. Just the data, please.
In “The Anthropocene Reviewed,” John Green plays the 21st century game of reviewing everything while quietly subverting the game, gently nudging us toward the more important work of discerning meaning.
In this collection of brief essays, Green, with his Vonnegutian sense of the heartbreaking absurdity of human existence, gives us more than his review of things that have caught his attention. He reviews everything: Diet Dr Pepper, Disney's Hall of Presidents, the Piggly Wiggly, the Academic Decathlon, the Taco Bell breakfast menu, along with sunsets and sycamores and the Notes App on his iPhone.
Most of these things pass by us on the conveyor belt of our days, and we're not supposed to really pay attention to any of it, so of course paying attention is exactly what he wants us to do. “It is our attentiveness that is in short supply,” he writes, “our ability and willingness to do the work that awe requires.”
One of my favorite moments in the book is when Green watches the 2003 invasion of Iraq on CNN (two stars) with his friend Hussein, who'd grown up in Kuwait. The reporter talks about the anger and bitterness in the streets as the camera focuses on black spray-painted graffiti, supposedly an illustration of the reporter's point. Hussein laughs, and John asks why. The graffiti says, “Happy birthday, sir, despite the circumstances.”
So it goes, as any reader of “Slaughterhouse Five” would say.
I thought about Kurt Vonnegut a lot while reading this book. Grappling with despair and a world gone mad, their responses are similar. How do you live, and for what, when you've experienced the atrocities of World War II? How do you go on in the face of global warming and pandemics? What do you live for? What can we do for sure about anything? And about a third of the way through “The Anthropocene Reviewed” I realized, again as is true of Vonnegut's collected nonfiction, the consistency and grace and love of the worldview that comes increasingly into focus and beats back despair.
One critic used the phrase “memoiristic empathy” when referring to Green's essays, and I thought, yes, that's exactly right. It applies to Vonnegut as well: empathy for the individual reading, empathy for your own lost innocence, and empathy and love for humanity as a whole. While it's true that humans with their too-big and often malfunctioning brains (a Vonnegut phrase) make colossal collective mistakes, that's not all we do.
“Suffering and injustice are not rare,” Green said to a group of Butler University students in November 2020, around the time he was finishing up this book, “but neither are wonder and joy.”
And so let me end by saying that I give John Green's “The Anthropocene Reviewed” absolutely all the stars, every last one of them in all their glittery glory. A Milky Way of stars. (And should you worry about star inflation, don't. I'm aware that they're imaginary and am also aware that stars are not the point and also that they're not exhaustible.) I am grateful for the way Green reaches out to the reader, many of them (but not all) young adults struggling with cynicism and needing a reason to find hope and meaning. I'm grateful for his honesty, his humor, his hard work, his project.
Like another book written and published during the pandemic, Zadie Smith's “Intimations,” this book gives us a road map to meaning during difficult times. The road maps are similar. As poet Mary Oliver wrote: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” It's the telling about it that the artist gives us.
Susan Neville, the author of six works of creative nonfiction, is winner of the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction. She lives in Indianapolis and teaches writing at Butler University and in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. Her review is made possible by the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Awards and Indiana Humanities.
"The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human Centered Planet" by John Green (Dutton) 304 pages, $28
About the book author
John Green is the award-winning, bestselling author of books including “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Turtles All the Way Down.” Selected by Time magazine as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World, he lives with his family in Indianapolis.