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Author John Green explores the human experience through five-star reviews

John GreenMarina Waters

The author of “The Fault in Our Stars,” “Looking for Alaska,” and other YA blockbusters, John Green is a superstar in the world of young adult fiction. So his latest book, “The Anthropocene Reviewed,” is a bit of a departure — a nonfiction book aimed at adult readers, but with his signature voice. Originally launched as a podcast, the book’s content is a massive, unruly collection of zero- to five-star “reviews” of everything from sunsets to the Lascaux cave paintings to Diet Dr. Pepper.

Q. Why did you structure this book, which in some ways is a memoir-in-essays, within the frame of a series of reviews?


A. I find that I can only write about my experiences through the lens of other stuff, even if I’m writing in a journal. I started writing these essays because I wanted to pay attention to what I was paying attention to. I wanted to slow down and make a quiet place in what had become a very loud world. It’s very different from anything else that I’ve written. As for why I did it in the form of essays, grading on a five-star scale, I was trying to respond to this weird moment when everything has become a subject for review and all of us are reviewers.

John Green's latest nonfiction work, "The Anthropocene Reviewed."Handout

Q. You mention in the book that you once worked as a book reviewer. What kind of reviewer were you — gentle or harsh?

A. I suppose it would depend on which author you ask! When I review books I always try to think of the audience for them, and whether the book will engage and serve that audience, rather than from a perspective of “I know what constitutes good literature and this is or is not it.” As a reviewer I tried to think about, “Will this book find its audience? Will it help its audience?” I tried to be empathetic with the reader more than with the writer.


Q. The pieces in the book are such an interesting blend — they’re very personal and revealing, but they’re also well-researched. Do you enjoy doing research?

A. I do. I love falling into a world that way and trying to figure stuff out and trying to make connections. Most of my career has been writing fiction, but I’ve been writing nonfiction for a long time, from book reviews to scripts for our educational channel, Crash Course, to writing Vlogbrothers videos. Over the last 15 years I’ve fallen in deeper and deeper love with the process of researching, and trying to understand something, and then figuring out how to tell the story in a way that doesn’t deceive via distillation. So often, you have to pick which parts of a story you tell, especially if you’re trying to tell the story succinctly or to a broader audience, but the really interesting challenge is how to do that in a way that makes the material accessible without oversimplifying it.

Q. One thing that runs throughout the book is the global challenge we’re facing with climate change. How do you maintain a tone when writing about climate change that will encourage readers to stick with you — you could just be howling in the wilderness and driving everyone away.

A. I totally understand why readers might not want to engage with the big problems we share. That’s a big challenge. I write in the book about how humans are in this weird moment where we have unprecedented power and we are radically reshaping earth’s biodiversity and changing the climate. But on an individual level, I don’t feel very much of that power because I can’t get my kid to eat breakfast in the morning let alone choose which species live and die. This contradiction of human power really interests me.


And I felt like it was a way in to writing about those big shared challenges in a way that hopefully would be accessible and also not hopeless. I think it’s very easy to respond to these big challenges that we face with despair and I don’t begrudge anyone who responds with despair. But we’ve faced huge challenges before and found a way to go on. And I guess I don’t think it’s Pollyannaish to say we will continue to find a way to go on.

Q. Do you have a favorite essay in the book?

A. I guess the one about sunsets, because [it] is the one where I was really trying to articulate my feelings about the world and the beauty in it and the wonder that’s out there if we pay attention to it — and how hard it is to really take off the armor of cynicism and irony and try to reckon honestly with the beauty of the sunset.

Q. What do you hope that the reader will take away from this book?


A. I want it to find the people who will care about it and benefit from it or feel something that they can connect to. Sometimes I’ll be reading and I will feel like the book knows a secret about me that it can’t possibly know because I’ve never told anyone. And that will make me feel far less alone. The dream is always that somebody will feel that way reading something you wrote. I hope people will take away the fact that attention is a gift. And that our world is full of terrors and injustice and that is real and it’s important. But our world is also full of wonder and awe and hope and that is also real.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Kate Tuttle, a freelance writer and critic, can be reached at