Although I love most of the media output from John and Hank Green of Vlogbrothers fame, I’ve never really got into John Green’s books. I don’t read a lot of YA. I’ve got plenty of frankly excruciating memories of adolescence as it is and have no desire to revisit it. However, I love his podcast The Anthropocene Reviewed, which takes the way we five-star review everything these days and superimposes it onto various things that inform and have been informed by humanity. That sounds like a nonsense concept – because it is – but Green is a great writer and he really makes it work. He’s now developed some of those essays further, written some new ones, and compiled them into a book. If you’re familiar with John Green’s general media output, you’ll know roughly what to expect in terms of content. Lots of honest but hopeful mental health chat, earnest treatment of silly subjects and silly treatment of earnest ones, extremely deep dives on the most mundane or peculiar things. In fact, I think that’s an area where Green has improved as a writer since he started The Anthropocene Reviewed podcast. In the early episodes, I sometimes felt that the stories were being tortured a bit to end up at whatever analogy or meaning he’d extracted from them, and I found that as well in the one novel I’ve read by him (Turtles All The Way Down). I didn’t experience that at all listening to the book – all his analytical thinking and conclusions felt reasonable and earned.
This is an essay collection steeped in the pandemic. Even chapters which had their genesis as episodes of the podcast, aired long before 2020, have been substantially rewritten for a new context. If I’d listened to this last year, it might have been too much, but actually – because I’ve had my first jab, I’ve seen my family, and I’ve had my first hug since Feburary 2020 – it felt quite manageable. I listened to this as an audiobook, but I may buy the paperback when it comes out. Because this successfully captured so much of what was strange or awful about the past eighteen months, I think it would be a good thing to have a copy of as a record of the time. If, some time in the future, I have nieces or nephews, or grand-godchildren (godgrandchildren?), and they want to know what the pandemic felt like, I think this book might be a good answer, at least from my own experience. This also means that this didn’t feel too much like a podcast book, but just a book in its own right. I did wonder if this would be just episodes of the podcast tarted up a bit, but most of the essays felt fresh and new. They cover all sorts of things – the American grocery chain Piggly Wiggly; the Indy 500; the world’s largest ball of paint; plague; a particular Icelandic hot dog stand; the Liverpool footballer Jerzy Dudek; the song Auld Lang Syne; scratch ‘n’ sniff stickers; viral meningitis. Sometimes the chapters are a deep dive into the history of the item, person or place; sometimes they are about Green’s own experience with the thing; commonly, it’s a mix of both. At one point, he refers to it as a sort of memoir, but I prefer the description he gives in his introduction: it’s an attempt to really pay attention to what he pays attention to. As enthusiastic non-fiction readers know, almost anything is interesting if you look deeply enough. This book is certainly testament to that.
In addition to being interesting, this is also an extraordinarily kind and human book, and in this it reflects the podcast. The Anthropocene Reviewed episode that came out as a one-off in late September 2020 was on the subject of plague. I’ve linked it at the bottom of this review. I initially tried to listen to it while I was working, but I had to walk away from my computer completely and just give up on work for a while because it made me properly cry. At the time, we were clearly heading for a second national lockdown in the UK, though it wouldn’t be announced for several weeks. I don’t think that I’ve ever been as viscerally afraid of anything, at least as an adult, as I was of that looming second lockdown. It turned out to be slightly less severe than the spring 2020 lockdown, but that wasn’t clear until they announced it. I could foresee another n months of being alone, going outside my flat once or twice a week to buy food but otherwise never interacting with anyone made of flesh and blood rather than pixels. The episode focuses on how difficult it is to be alone and isolated when the whole world is going mad. He talks about the Derbyshire village, Eyam, that chose to quarantine itself in 1665 to prevent the bubonic plague from spreading to its neighbours – and what a sacrifice that would have been, and the fact that it ultimately worked. Throughout this whole period, I have really felt (however unjustly) like I am being asked to pay for other people’s physical health with my mental health – which I’ve done, but I has been an extremely painful trade-off. Somehow, Green actually put that feeling into words, but managed to articulate it in combination with a hopefulness that had been completely lacking in the news. The Plague essay is one of those that was substantially rewritten for the book, which I appreciated – it would have been easy for Green to justify including that very recent episode as-is, but it was nice to have a new perspective.
The essay about sycamore trees was perhaps my favourite, even though it’s one of the few that was largely a repeat. In it, Green tells the story of a mental health crisis he had a few years ago, and a sycamore tree he saw while out on a walk with his son during that time. He doesn’t make the trite argument that looking at a sycamore tree alleviated his depression. Rather, the depression was being gradually brought back under control with medication and therapy and other proper medical treatment, and the result of that was that the beauty of the sycamore tree struck him with much greater force than usual. Like most people, I imagine, I know this feeling. I can still remember a bunch of cowslips that I saw growing out of a crack in the pavement when I was going through a very miserable season – not a mental health crisis, exactly, but certainly a very sad period in my life. Everything had been grey and awful for so long, and that burst of bright yellow forcing its way out of the ground was so intensely beautiful that it made me cry. Of course, I wouldn’t have cried over the cowslips if I hadn’t spent days (months?) almost always on the point of tears one way or another, but now I don’t really remember the grief of that time. I remember the cowslips. I think that’s what worked so well for me about this essay collection – even though Green is talking about such specific experiences or concepts, he has a way of capturing human experiences that feels very universal.
This wasn’t one of my 20 Books of Summer – I started listening to it when it first came out, and it kept me company as I gradually worked on clearing my extremely overgrown new allotment. I had a few essays left when 20 Books of Summer started and I figured I would get to them eventually, but the other night I had a bout of insomnia and finished the rest of the book in the wee small hours. It really is a keeping-you-company sort of book, and I’m always grateful when a book accomplishes that, but it’s particularly appreciated right now, with the memories of fifteen months of alone time still extremely fresh in my head. Green is brutally honest about his own struggles and difficulties – “these days, I am crying most of the time” – and I think that’s what makes it an especially timely book, though it’s my understanding that he was already writing it pre-March 2020. It’s a funny, sad, fascinating, engrossing, and compassionate series of essays that, overall, I enjoyed very much. I will probably listen to some of the essays again – the Indy 500 one has stayed with me, for example – and, as I’ve said, I expect I’ll buy a paperback as well, as a record of this strange season.
I cut star ratings from my reviews a long time ago, after experiences where I either hated a technically accomplished book or loved one that I knew was objectively not good, but in keeping with the spirit of these essays: I give The Anthropocene Reviewed five stars.