I cannot buy a book before I’ve read it. Questions of limited funds aside, what if the book just sits on my shelf, unread until I move again? What if I hate the ending? The rational answer to my concern, of course, would be to return the book; however, returning a book requires effort and gas money. Besides, more than anything, buying a book is about trust — trust that it will subvert your expectations. It’s a leap of faith. So when I saw a signed copy of “The Anthropocene Reviewed” by John Green for the first time, I surprised everyone, including myself, by buying a copy. I wasn’t prepared to find a new favorite book.
Wherever I move, I will be taking this book with me. Green’s collection of personal essays about the Anthropocene, our current geologic age of unavoidable human influence, is easily digestible but incredibly complex. The book is composed of essays, or “reviews,” of different facets of the Anthropocene — anything from “Penguins of Madagascar” to “Auld Lang Syne” and “Sycamore Trees.” The idea was sparked when beloved brothers John and Hank Green found amusement in reviews of national parks on Google, leading them to come up with “The Anthropocene Reviewed,” a podcast in 2018, with episodes like “The Icelandic Hot Dog Stand and Signing Your Name 250,000 Times” or “Air Conditioning and Sycamore Trees.” Now, “The Anthropocene Reviewed” exists as a book, with excerpts from the podcasts, as well as new essays.
Green is known for his wildly divisive young adult novels but has most definitely hit his stride in writing non-fiction. The connection between his YA fiction and this collection of essays isn’t overt or noticeable (except for the parts where he mentions his books). Many of the dozens of deeply emotional and philosophical essays are around four to six pages. Due to their extraordinary nature, I’ve had to take multiple breaks reading this book. Green simultaneously paints a deeply honest roadmap of his life and the Anthropocene, focusing on coping with the condition of our deeply bizarre, ultra-modern world and unintentionally creating an unfinished list of reasons to love being alive. He writes with such unconditional love for the world — it’s no small feat to convince me that the answer to my problems is to visit Indianapolis.
As expected, a common theme is the magnitude of the Earth’s temporal range or range of existence in units of time. In an essay titled “Humanity’s Temporal Range,” Green writes, “We know we are circling a star that will one day engulf us. We’re the only species that knows it has a temporal range.” Green focuses on questions of relative temporal ranges by portraying our short but impactful time on earth and how he has come to terms with the inevitable destruction of humanity.
In another essay on the Bonneville Salt Flats, Green writes, “In the age of the Anthropocene, humans tend to believe, despite all available evidence, that the world is here for our benefit. So the Bonneville Salt Flats must have a human use; why else would they exist? Nothing can grow in that dry, salty soil, but we find uses for it anyway.” Within the book, Green describes how humans manage to persevere as a species and wreak havoc upon the Earth. The Earth has existed for billions of years before us and will exist after. Humans tend to believe their impact is the most beneficial occurrence to ever happen to the Earth, but Green succeeds in making humans seem just what they are: mortal. That’s not to say the author underplays climate change. Humans, despite being clueless about the history before them, are both creative and destructive.
Green also observes phenomena surrounding humans that have lasted for thousands of years. While writing of the history of the treatment of Staphylococcus aureus, a bacteria, he mentions, “[Staphylococcus] doesn’t know about people. It just wants to be, like I want to go on, like that ivy that wants to spread across the wall, occupying more and more of it.” Perhaps Staphylococcus is Green’s apt metaphor in describing humanity; always evolving into a new form, but also fundamentally creative, destructive, parasitic and never-changing in its identity.
Motifs in human history are common throughout Green’s novel; he mentions human traditions that have lasted years in his essays “Lascaux Cave Paintings” and “Auld Lang Syne.” He also speaks of odd developments of the modern age in essays such as “Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest,” writing, “I love humans. We would really eat our way out of sixty cubic feet of popcorn to survive.” Green speaks of the symptoms, side-effects and genetic causes of our human experience. He holds a soft spot for humanity and cannot help but laugh at the ridiculousness and recurring themes that will inevitably appear within all of our lifetimes. The perseverance of humanity is a topic that deeply interests the author, and by the end of the book, the reader as well. Of course, even he must persevere in his personal life, and his personal stories of living with existential uncertainty are among the best moments of the piece.
Green’s work observes our perseverance through mortality. Humanity has the stubbornness of a pathogen: constantly evolving, yet our DNA is traceable through millions of years. Instead of choosing to fear our messy, parasitic nature, Green laughs it off in a book that will most likely be studied in the future for its poignancy, wit and honest-to-god genius. The greatest gift any human could give is their own roadmap of the Anthropocene. What defines your existence, no matter how hard you wish for it not to? A few days ago, I called a friend and read the essay “Indianapolis” aloud to bother him into reading the whole work. Sometimes, buying a book is worth it.
Daily Arts writer Meera Kumar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.