If you’re any kind of reader like me, you read way more fiction than not. Literally 2.8 % of my books read this year were non-fiction (that’s two books!). For years non-fiction has felt unwelcoming—the genre of books you read when you need to learn about taxes and self-help, and assigned reading. In short, boring. That was, until I read The Anthropocene Reviewed (TAR) by John Green.
This book was entirely written during the pandemic, but TAR has its roots in a longer history as a podcast by the same name. John Green started the podcast in 2018, and his episodes reviewed “different facets of the human-centered planet” on a five-star scale. Topics range in both the book and podcast from Canada Geese to Mario Kart to Auld Lang Syne. And since John Green includes his perspective and encounters with these facets in these essays, I though I’d include a little of myself here too.
I preordered my signed copy of The Anthropocene Reviewed a month early. All 250,000 copies of the first printing were signed. I bought the book as a ‘yay for finishing a year of pandemic-university’ present, and I even made a vlog about getting my book from the bookstore. Maybe building up all this anticipation was a bad idea, but the novel did not disappoint. Here are five lessons I took away from reading The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green and how they apply to fiction writing.
In the essay ‘Wintry Mix’, Green opens with pulling withered tomato plants from his garden, regretting he waited until January to start the task. The garden is quiet and cold, and underneath sleeps Green’s groundhog nemesis. For eight years she has tormented his garden, knowing he doesn't have the will to get rid of her. However, during the pandemic Green spent more and more time in his backyard, and what was once a nemesis becomes a welcome constant in his life.
As humans, we are unable to stop ourselves from giving things meaning, but we have a choice in what kind of meaning (221). As authors, we have the opportunity to create the meaning that we want through our work. We have the power to show what deserves meaning, and the vanguards of that meaning. The perspective we show something through, like a character or voice, affects the meaning a reader takes from it.
It’s Nice to Read in Small Bites
A generous person would call my reading pace leisurely. I’d call it slow. I don’t feel the call to paper books as strongly as I do towards audiobooks or YouTube or other things I “waste time” on. I savor the books I own, because once I finish them my relationship with them is over. Due to the perceived low commitment, digital media feels easier to gorge myself on, and as a result, the number of physical books I’ve read in 2021 could be held with one arm. But The Anthropocene Reviewed doesn’t shame me for my reading pace, it encourages bite-sized sessions. Reading a few of the 47 essays at a time, it took a month to finish, and each essay spoke to me in a different way, always a welcome companion.
Vulnerability is Beautiful
In his review of sunsets, Green finds he has trouble describing a good sunset because it “renders all [his] thoughts as gauzy and as soft as the light itself” (95). From all angles except our own, sunsets should be boring. They happen every day! Yet sunsets are so fragile, in flux. Changing between each microsecond, and I think it’s beautiful that we love looking at them. Sunsets reminds me of us, of being human. We are always changing, always finding beauty to look at.
Reading Green’s viewpoint, I feel close to him. He’s vulnerable in his honesty. He mentions the wall of cynicism he usually hides behind and turns away from it, similarly to how we turn away from the Sun. As an author, ask yourself, what do your characters think is beautiful, or is the most amazing phenomenon? What do they normally hide behind, and when does that break down?
Savor the Moment
Like the lesson above, I realized from the ‘Auld Lang Syne’ essay that every moment is unique. Moments are bridges between the past and the future, and they all carry their own meaning. Dipping into the existential, we have a limited number of encounters with everything in our lives. You have a finite number of times to look at a sunset, or a smile. But we are here.
In the months after reading this book I felt more aware, intentional, of my life as lived it. Recently that has faded, but guess what I’m going to be thinking about after finishing this article?
When we write, we should choose moments to savor. Put me there. Make me feel like stopping for a while, that the time spent there feels important. I find sensory details to be very grounding for this intentionality.
We Still Have Birthdays
There are a lot of favorite essays to choose from in John Green’s book of reviews, but my favorite might be ‘CNN’. It sits in the middle of the book and feels like an emotional turning point. Green starts with the history of CNN and moves into the concept of newness. News literally values what is new. Networks broadcast breaking events, but so much of life is changed through processes. The news leaves context behind in favor of urgency, and this can create misinformation and assumptions. In the wake of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, a news broadcast reports about the anger and hatred in the streets in Iraq, camera pointed at Arabic graffiti. Green’s friend Hassan laughs and translates it into a happy birthday message. The CNN essay reminds me that we can go too far with assumptions, and that as dark as things may seem, people still have birthdays and reasons to celebrate.
In fiction writing we should balance our stories with the good and bad, the hard and the easy. Stories feel complete when they hold more than one emotion, and I think they’re true to life that way.
The Anthropocene Reviewed is a lesson in savoring, of finding moments of connection and absurdity. Of choosing what kind of meaning you give to the world. It’s part-memoir, part-book of reviews, and honestly my favorite book I’ve read this year.
This book is perfect for the non-fiction adverse. And did I mention all the fun facts? Did you know that Diet Dr Pepper doesn’t taste like anything? Or that the lemmings in the famous Disney documentary were pushed? There’s plenty more where that came from.
I give The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green five stars.
is a writer based in North Carolina. She attends writing classes of all kinds at UNC Chapel Hill and has a particular fondness for sharp imagery. In her free time, she drafts her own novels.