In addition to being the most successful Indiana author of the 21st century, a YouTube star, and an executive producer of Hollywood films, John Green once reviewed books for a living. Although his time at Booklist lasted only a few years, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little additional pressure assessing his new collection of essays, The Anthropocene Reviewed. As is evident in his weekly Vlogbrothers videos (3.3 million subscribers) and Crash Course series (12.3 million), Green possesses the kind of intelligence rarely applied to, say, the history of Diet Dr. Pepper or the regional grocery chain Piggly Wiggly. That, along with his fondness for Indiana, is what makes his latest book so much fun.
The Anthropocene Reviewed began in 2018 as a podcast dedicated to studying the “human-centered planet.” Green dives into the history of subjects from the bubonic plague to Monopoly, rating them each on a five-star scale. I give podcasts, as a medium, one star. Listening to someone blather in monotone with no visual accompaniment always struck me as an outdated and boring format. I’ve found myself listening to Green’s, however, for its straight-faced evaluations of absurd subjects like Hawaiian pizza and tongue-in-cheek appraisals of serious ones like viral meningitis (same episode).
Green has expanded some of those installments into short essays for the book. The podcast’s most devoted listeners won’t find as much new material as they’d like, with many of the 44 essays borrowing liberally from episodes. Still, Green’s empathy and sense of humor shine through both the new material and the old—most clearly when he’s writing about the Hoosier State.
In a review of Indianapolis (one that ultimately, generously results in four stars), he writes, “There’s no getting around Indianapolis’s many imperfections … One of our major thoroughfares is named Ditch Road, for God’s sakes. Ditch Road. We could name it anything—Kurt Vonnegut Drive, Madam C.J. Walker Way, Roady McRoadface—but we don’t. We accept Ditch.” A review of the world’s largest ball of paint in Alexandria, Indiana, yields this gem: “I’ve often wished—especially when I was younger—that my work was better, that it rose to the level of genius, that I could write well enough to make something worth remembering. But I think that way of imagining art might make individuals too important. Maybe in the end, art and life are more like the world’s biggest ball of paint. You carefully choose your colors, and then add your layer as best you can. In time, it gets painted over.” Green’s assessment of the meteorological phenomenon “wintry mix” includes the confession, “Obviously, I don’t love being pelted by tiny balls of freezing rain or having sleet lash at me from seemingly impossible angles as it blows across the flat and unbroken misery of an Indiana field. And yet … I do kind of like wintry mix. It’s one of the ways I know that I’m home.” And his chapter on the Indy 500, too poignant to sum up with a brief quote, should be required reading this month.
Throughout the book, Green has hidden funny mini reviews of the standard elements of a published work that most readers flip right past: the copyright page, the half-title page, the autograph page. (He signed all 200,000 copies of the initial run.) For me, that same instinct is what made Green’s novels so readable: He’s curious enough to find meaning in the seemingly meaningless. As compelling as the plots of Paper Towns and Turtles All the Way Down are, it’s the digressions into the history of cartography and ancient tuatara reptiles that elevate them.
The Anthropocene Reviewed is Green’s first nonfiction book. “I realized I didn’t want to write in code anymore,” he says of his novels and the attempts readers made to know the author through the lines. Given the hundreds of hours he has spent sharing his life on YouTube, it’s unlikely readers will find many revelations in these pages about him. Through his inquisitive explorations of scratch ’n’ sniff stickers and Canada geese, however, I learned quite a bit about the world. I give The Anthropocene Reviewed four stars.