Books and writing, if you'll allow me to be hyperbolic for a moment, have always been a large part of my life. I can remember sitting in an alcove in my family's old apartment, a small baby gate separating me from the rest of the world, just reading. Eventually, I decided to try the craft myself, penning a poem that would go on to win the Mother's Day poetry competition of a local newspaper. It didn't matter that I had to write the poem for my third-grade class. The seeds had been sown, as the cliche goes, and I was hooked.
Something changed along the way. My love of poems was replaced with one of Facebook posts. I traded in texts for text messages. I still read some, but most of what I did read was assigned for school. The written word slipped away from me, lying dormant in the recesses of my mind, waiting for the right book to rouse it once more.
The book, it turned out, wasn't some lofty Victorian tome or the brilliant absurdism of Beckett. Nor would it be the works of science fiction and fantasy that I adore. Instead, it would come to me in the form of a Young Adult novel, a love story of two teenagers living, truly living, with cancer.
I'm talking, of course, about John Green's The Fault in Our Stars.
Published in January 2012, the novel spent seven consecutive weeks on the top of the New York Times Bestseller list. Of course, that's not normally a reflection of the quality of the work, but I believe that this particular novel deserved its spot. On the surface, The Fault in Our Stars is a simple love story, the ancient story of "Girl meets boy." But to call it a love story doesn't truly do the novel justice. In the opening few pages of the book, Green writes that
“Whenever you read a cancer booklet or website or whatever, they always list depression among the side effects of cancer. But, in fact, depression is not a side effect of cancer. Depression is a side effect of dying.”
In the same vein, love, the love between Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters, is a side effect of life.
And that is what the book is truly about. Living in the face of death, hoping in the face of hopelessness. The book is driven by the hope of these two teenagers, whose love, fear, and sense of life are so raw, primordial, and entirely unabashedly real. The book is by no stretch of the imagination a "happy" one, but neither is it sad. What it is, really, is transformative. The book tears the reader open, then fills them with equal parts joy and sorrow. Just as quickly, it will seal them once more with hope, leaving them thankful for their little infinity.
In one of his YouTube videos (Green is one half of the Vlogbrothers Channel, which he runs with his younger brother Hank), Green said something that should resonate as true with any writer:
"The funny thing about writing is that whether you're doing it well or you're doing it poorly, it looks the exact same. That is actually one of the main ways that writing is different from ...dancing."
Though this may be true, Green has proven himself to be a Gene Kelly of the literary world with this novel. Green's fiction has managed to capture the reality faced by so many. But one of the things that sets this particular novel apart from the plethora of "sick lit" novels that fill the Young Adult shelves of our bookstores is the simple fact that Green writes his characters as people, and not as a walking disease, as something other. This comes, in part, from Green's previous job as a Chaplain at a children's hospital. It was here that Green began to formulate the idea that would eventually become The Fault in Our Stars.
But it wasn't until he met Esther Earl that he began to seriously consider writing the book. Earl, a long time Nerdfighter (fans of the Green brothers' YouTube channel), first met Green at Leaky-Con 2009, a Harry Potter convention in Boston. Earl, a teenager at the time, quickly became friends with Green. In 2006, at the age of twelve, Earl was diagnosed with Thyroid Cancer, which typically has an extremely high survival rate for young people. Green, upon discovering this, made sure that their relationship wouldn't dissolve into a simple research opportunity for his book. By all accounts, he was successful in this endeavor. Earl passed away before Green's novel had been finished, leading Green to say that he is "astonished that the book has found such a wide audience, but the person [he] most want[s] to read it never will."
While The Fault in Our Stars was influenced by Earl, Green has stated on numerous occasions that it is not her story. Earl kept her own story in her journals and letters, a collection that was compiled into the book This Star Won't Go Out. The book, named after the charity Earl's parents founded after her death (more information here), is truly incredible. Earl's writing is breathtaking, simultaneously playful and wise. But the most important thing about her writing is that it reinforces the idea that she was a person, far more complex and complete than a simple source of inspiration. Her writing shows moments in which she's not as "strong" as she is at other times, whatever that means. She lived, as the rest of us do, and her writing shows just that. It's not a book about a Girl With Cancer, it's a book about a girl who just happened to have cancer. In the words of Green,
"Esther was uncommon not because she was sick but because she was Esther, and she did not exist so that the rest of us could learn Important Lessons about Life. The meaning of her life--like the meaning of any life--is a maddeningly ambiguous question shrouded in uncertainty."
Oftentimes, when someone says that something has changed their life, it is simply a hyperbole of the greatest magnitude. So I will make no claims of either of these books changing the course of my life, wonderful as they may be. But I will say that these two books have made me reevaluate just what is important to me. In a lot of ways, that's simply more important than diverting the path one walks blindly. I will leave you now with a final quote from Green, this time coming from the mouth of Hazel Grace Lancaster.
"Sometimes you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read that book."
For me, both The Fault in Our Stars and This Star Won't Go Out fall into that category.
Other images via The Fault in Our Stars Quotes Tumblr
Quotes taken from The Fault in Our Stars, This Star Won't Go Out, and the Brotherhood 2.0 video "July 19: A Day in the Life of a Writer (Who Has No Friends)"