John Green reviews the podcast The Anthropocene Reviewed.
John Green reviews the podcast The Anthropocene Reviewed.
Hello, and welcome to The Anthropocene Reviewed, a podcast where we review different facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale. I’m John Green, coming to you today with a slightly different episode. I suppose this is in a roundabout way a review, but it is our most self-absorbed review yet, which is really saying something. Today, I’ll be reviewing the podcast The Anthropocene Reviewed.
So, just to make the announcement at the beginning: This podcast will be taking an indefinite hiatus after next month’s episode. I think we’ll be back at some point with some new reviews, but it will be a while. And today I wanted to let you know why, and also talk about the place this podcast has had in my life.
My novel Turtles All the Way Down was published in October of 2017, and after spending that month touring for the book across the United States, I came home to Indianapolis, and I blazed a trail between my children’s treehouse and the little room where my wife and I often work, a room that depending on your worldview is either an office or a shed.
This was not a metaphorical trail or anything. It was an actual trail in the woods, and to make it I cleared dozens of the prolific and invasive honeysuckle trees that choke much of central Indiana, and I dug up the English Ivy that had taken over, and then I covered the path in woodchips and lined it with bricks. I worked on the path ten or twelve hours a day, five or six days a week, for over a month. And when I finally finished, I timed myself walking along the path from our office to the treehouse. Fifty eight seconds. It took me a month to build a fifty-eight second walk in the woods. It felt a little self-indulgent, but also wonderful. That path was the first time I’d done serious work not intended for the world to see since I was a chaplain half my life ago.
And then a week after finishing the path, I was searching through a drawer for some chapstick when all at once and without any warning, my balance failed. The world began to roll and spin. I was suddenly in a very small boat in very high seas. My eyes were shivering in their sockets. I began vomiting and was rushed to the hospital, and for weeks afterward, the world just spun and spun. Eventually I was diagnosed with labyrinthitis, a disease of the inner ear with a wonderously resonant name that is nonetheless an unambiguously one-star disorder.
When I began to recover from labyrinthitis, I realized that for a while at least, I did not want to write another novel. Turtles All the Way Down had gotten good reviews, and it had found many people who told me they needed it, or benefitted from it, and I was grateful for that. But both the writing and the publication of that book were difficult for me. The book is about a girl with OCD, and while I was promoting it, people asked me a lot of questions about my own mental health. I had invited these questions by having a public life as a mentally ill person, but still, talking so much about myself in the context of fiction became exhausting for me, and a little destabilizing.
The writer Allegra Goodman was once asked, “Whom would you like to write your life story?” And she answered, “I seem to be writing it myself, but since I’m a novelist, it’s all in code.” And I guess for me, it started to feel like some readers thought they knew the code. They would assume I shared the worldview of a book’s teenage protagonist, or they’d ask me questions as if I were the protagonist: One very famous interviewer asked me if I also, like the narrator of Turtles All the Way Down, experience panic attacks when kissing. Answering such personal questions had left me feeling like I didn’t belong to me anymore, like my self wasn’t really mine, but instead something I was selling or at least renting out in exchange for good press and book sales.
But then again, here I am, telling you a story about myself, publicizing the private. Can I build a trail without telling you I built it? I’ve benefited tremendously from sharing aspects of my life publicly, and I do think talking about one’s experiences can help both one’s self and others to feel less alone. But I began to feel like I had shared too much, and I couldn’t walk it back. To cite just one example, I hadn’t taken steps to keep our address private, because that seemed like an absurd thing to do. And by 2014, strangers were knocking on our door at least a couple times a week. Sometimes they wanted an autograph, or a picture, or just to peer inside. One young person asked why I didn’t live in a nicer house, if I was such a famous author. I felt, on a few levels, overexposed.
My previous book, The Fault in Our Stars, had been successful on a scale that I never really got my head around. The book has sold over ten million copies, and it became the kind of book that people feel like they need to have opinions about. For a year or so, my work was close to the center of U.S. pop culture: Saturday Night Live made fun of the book, albeit in a gentle way. TIME Magazine called it the best fiction book of the year. Other people really disliked the book, and also really disliked me. People criticized my work, my appearance, my way of speaking, and I was often tagged in that criticism to make sure that I saw it.
And this is the part I never really know how to talk about. I am deeply grateful that The Fault in Our Stars has found so many readers, and that the book has been read with such uncommon generosity. But it is also true that parts of the public attention sucked. Now, I don’t want to get too deep into this, because the thing where famous people increase their famousness by talking publicly about how hard it is to be famous is one of the defining content genres of the 21st century, and I’m not looking to add to that already extensive oeuvre. That said, whether you’re famous or not, it is of course unpleasant when people threaten to hurt you or call you terrible names.
I was lucky in so many ways--lucky to have a wonderful spouse with her own flourishing career, supportive communities online and off, friends and family who weren’t interested in trading on my fame for their own ends. And I am also privileged--when my friends who aren’t cis white men have experienced similar levels of success in publishing or movies, they have also experienced exponentially more abuse than I ever saw.
Still, to be honest I found my brief foray into pop culture pretty unpleasant. I started to really hate myself, and I felt scared all the time, and writing fiction--which had always been a way out of myself and into other worlds and other lives--began to feel claustrophobic. It would take six years and a proper mental health crisis before I could finish Turtles All the Way Down. And now, I had finished it, and I had told the famous interviewer that I do not happen to get panic attacks when kissing, at least not so far, but I do have a lot of panic attacks and boy are they unfun. And I had blazed the trail between the shed and the treehouse, and the world had gone topsy turvy, and I was in bed.
It is of course incredibly tempting to make labyrinthitis a metaphor: My life lacked balance and so I was devastated by a balance disorder. I spent a month drawing a straight line of a trail only to be told that life is never simple paths--only dizzying labyrinths folding in on themselves. Even now I find myself structuring this review like a maze, coming back to places I thought I’d left.
But this symbolization of disease is exactly what I’d try to write against in both Turtles All the Way Down and The Fault in Our Stars, where I hope at least OCD and cancer are portrayed not as battles to be won or as symbolic manifestations of character flaws or whatever, but as illnesses to be lived with as well as one can. I did not get labyrinthitis because the universe wanted to teach me a lesson about balance. And so I tried to live with it as well as I could. Within a month, I was mostly better, but I still have bouts of vertigo, and they are terrifying. I know now with a viscerality I didn’t before that consciousness is temporary and precarious. It’s actually not a metaphor to say that human life is a balancing act.
As I got better, I wondered what I would do with the rest of my life. I went back to making a video every Tuesday and a weekly podcast with my brother, but I wasn’t writing. I just did n’t have the capacity. For a while, I thought maybe I wouldn’t write again.
But then sometimes, I would go back through old documents, wondering if I’d ever written anything in the past that might offer a path forward. And then one day, I came across an idea I’d originally had in 2014 to write extremely in-depth, Yelp-style reviews of the world around me. Before I was a YouTuber, and before I was a novelist, I was a book reviewer for Booklist Magazine, and the format still fascinated me.
I had written a few of these overly thorough reviews--one on Diet Dr Pepper, another about Canada Geese, and a few about movies and books. These initial drafts pretended objectivity; they were written in the nonfictional version of third person omniscient narration, and when I sent the reviews to my wife Sarah to ask her thoughts, she told me they were interesting, but that the third person narration just didn’t work. I wasn’t an expert in Canada Geese and shouldn’t pretend to be. She pointed out that when people write reviews, they are really writing memoirs--here’s what my experience was eating at this restaurant or getting my hair cut at this barbershop. I’d written 1,500 words about Diet Dr Pepper without once mentioning my abiding and deeply personal love of Diet Dr Pepper.
I suppose I wanted that objective, third-person voice to the reviews because I was trying to get myself out of my work, but Sarah reminded me that for me anyway, writing is inherently personal.
And so I put myself into the reviews, and I showed them to my longtime producing partner Rosianna Halse Rojas, who said they should be a podcast, and I asked another longtime collaborator, Stan Muller, to direct and edit it. Sarah created our logo, and The Anthropocene Reviewed came to life.
From the beginning, it was the most fun I’d had writing since before I published my first novel. I loved falling down research rabbit holes, playing with ideas until I either hit a dead end or finished an essay. There’s a certain exhilaration to finding an illustrative detail--like for instance that as antiseptic techniques improved, the surgeon Alexander Ogston tore down a sign above the hospital’s operating theater that read, “Prepare to Meet Thy God.”
I also just like podcasts as a way of talking to people. I like that in order for this to work, everyone involved needs to listen, especially me. There’s a place for sincerity in podcasts, maybe even the over-earnestness for which I have a weakness. Also, for whatever reason, we’ve been able to make this podcast for people who like it without having to live with the vitriol of people who don’t.
All of this has made The Anthropocene Reviewed among the most deeply fulfilling creative experiences of my life. But maybe the most important thing it has given me is quiet. My life had become so unbearably loud, and so oriented around being loud. I mean, for the last thirteen years, I’ve carefully edited out each of my breaths in the YouTube videos I make to minimize the number of frames that contain silence.
And in that sense, anyway, The Anthropocene Reviewed has given me breath, given me space and quiet to look with calm but sustained attention at the world around me and the world within me. And yet, for a few reasons, I need to set it down for a while.
We’ll turn our attention to why after the break, but first, this may not be a proper podcast episode, but we sure do have a proper advertisement for you.
Okay, let’s go back to the show about why we’re pausing the show. Why? Well, to begin, I feel like I’ve said all I know how to say at this point about the contemporary human tragedy of being at once far too powerful and not nearly powerful enough. I’ve tried to consider the ways that big systems--from resource extraction to healthcare delivery--placed us into our historical present, and to find places where my little life touches those much larger forces. And most of all I’ve tried to find hope--for you but mostly for me--that can withstand the horrors and deep injustices of historical and contemporary human experience. The only article of faith in which I fully believe is an idea called “radical hope”--the idea that hope is always available, no matter what, to you and to everyone, that hope, as Emily Dickinson put it, “never stops at all.” I’ve tried through this project to explain and share that belief in radical hope, without minimizing or diminishing the monstrous history and present of our species. At any rate, I worry that if I continue monthly episodes without a break, I’ll just start repeating myself.
But there is also something else, which is that I need time. The Anthropocene Reviewed has become my full-time job--I realize these episodes are short, but they nonetheless take a full month to write. I need time to spend with my family, especially to support our kids as they reconcile themselves to the challenges and uncertainties of learning amid a pandemic. I need time to listen, to read, to be quiet, to take the world in. And I need time to finish The Anthropocene Reviewed book, which will be published next year by Dutton.
For a long time, I only missed writing books in the way you miss someone you used to love. But over the last year, I’ve been revising and expanding some of the reviews from this podcast--adding stuff I’ve learned since, or ideas listeners introduced me to--and I discovered that I really want to adapt the podcast into a book of essays. It’s been great fun to work on. The book also contains several new reviews--of the drug mirtazapine and the movie Penguins of Madagascar, of an August Sander photograph I love, and more.
You can preorder The Anthropocene Reviewed now wherever books are sold, provided that you can figure out how to spell The Anthropocene Reviewed, which God knows I still can’t even after all this practice. The audiobook, which will be read by me, is also available for preorder now.
As I’ve worked on the book, I’ve also begun to understand this podcast as an attempt to chart the contradictions of human life as I experience it--how we can be so compassionate and so cruel, so persistent and so quick to despair, and how consciousness is at once depraved in its meaninglessness and profoundly sacred in its meaning.
And here is yet one more contradiction: I began this review by telling you about how I retreated into myself after publishing Turtles All the Way Down and the labyrinthitis that followed, and how The Anthropocene Reviewed offered me a path out of that isolation. And I was critical of prying interviews that left me feeling dirty and exposed, but I also love interview shows, especially personal ones, and I often find them extremely helpful.
At the end of his life, the great picture book author Maurice Sendak said on the NPR interview show Fresh Air, “I cry a lot because I miss people. I cry a lot because they die and I can’t stop them. They leave me and I love them more.” He said, “I’m finding out as I’m aging that I’m in love with the world.” And I remember, when I first listened to that interview, wondering if I would ever feel that way.
It has taken me all my life up to now to fall in love with the world, but I’ve started to feel it in the last couple years. To fall in love with the world isn’t to ignore or overlook suffering, both human and otherwise. For me anyway, to fall in love with the world is merely to look up at the night sky and feel your mind swim before the beauty and the distance. It is to hold your children while they cry, to watch as the sycamore trees leaf out in June. When my breastbone starts to hurt, and my throat tightens, and tears well in my eyes, I want to look away from feeling, make a joke, I don’t want to feel this, because I’ve loved enough to know how loving ends. They die and I can’t stop them, Sendak said. But to fall in love with the world is to let the world crack you open anyway.
Sendak ended that interview with the last words he ever said in public: “Live your life. Live your life. Live your life.”
The gift I’ve been given by the people who make this podcast and those who listen to it is just that: You have helped me to live my life again. You’ve helped me to pay attention to what I pay attention to, as my friend Amy Krouse Rosenthal put it. I hope I can return the favor somehow. In the meantime, all I can say is that your kind and compassionate listening has made this three-star podcast a five-star experience. Thank you.
The Anthropocene Reviewed is written by me. The show is edited by Stan Muller, with whom I’ve collaborated on many projects over the last nine years. Stan’s calm, good humor, and incisive wit have enlivened this podcast so much, and working with him is one of the great joys of my professional life. Rosianna Halse Rojas has read and enriched every word of this show, pushing the reviews toward deeper nuance and more careful attention. At WNYC Studios, the incomparable Jenny Lawton has shepherded this project and advocated for it with such thoughtfulness and tenacity, and her leadership has meant so much through these last two years. Jenny, thank you for believing in this weird idea. Joe Plourde, our technical director, has given the podcast the pace and atmosphere I dreamt of. I’m astonished again and again by how much wonder and heart Joe and the show’s composer, Hannis Brown, can bring to my one-note baritone. I am also so grateful to Nadim Silverman, whose illustrations of each episode are just wonderful. Thanks also to Ashley Lusk, Tony Phillips, my brother Hank, and especially to Sarah Urist Green, whose work and life shows an affirming flame. And thanks to all of you for giving us a seat at your table. We’ll be back on the last Thursday of next month with our last episode for a while. Life your life. Live your life. Live your life.