I’m sure we can agree that the past five or ten years of the Anthropocene has seen an increase in the number of ratings we’re asked to give each day (on a scale of one through five) as though we’ve all been recruited as unwilling workers in a star factory. How many stars do you give your DoorDash delivery driver? (Well, he drove a car. The car seemed nice. He left the food on my front porch, as instructed. It arrived shortly after it was picked up. We never spoke. Five stars? Three?)
And will you please rate your experience with the Starbucks barista you saw two days ago? (This is just a reminder.) And the plumber who just left your house? And what about the doctor whose office you visited last week, and the nurse, and the office staff, all of whom are trying to do their work keeping you alive while also being asked to generate their own ratings for their delivery people and their co-workers on that five point scale.
Some days it feels as though the world is constantly quivering in wait for our so important opinions about absolutely everything, a feeling that makes it clear it doesn’t care about our opinions at all, not really. Just the data, please. In the absence of depth and real community, we’re made to feel that if we withhold even one star our car salesman or barista will starve and will probably be fired. And just when we think we can simply say ‘take my stars!’ we discover that the survey wants more from us: details and quotable sound bites the corporation can use to generate more data to attract more star-givers to the game.
In The Anthropocene Reviewed, John Green plays the 21st century game of reviewing everything while quietly subverting the game, gently nudging us toward the more important work of discerning meaning.
In this collection of brief essays, Green, with his Vonnegutian sense of the heartbreaking absurdity of human existence, gives us more than his review of things that have caught his attention. His choices are quirky, and whimsical, like all of ours would be, if not prompted. He reviews everything: Diet Dr. Pepper, Disney’s Hall of Presidents, the Piggly Wiggly, the Academic Decathlon, the Taco Bell breakfast menu, along with sunsets and sycamores and The Notes App on his iPhone. Most of these things pass by us on the conveyor belt of our days, and we’re not supposed to really pay attention to any of it, and so of course paying attention is exactly what he wants us to do. “It is our attentiveness that is in short supply,” he writes, “our ability and willingness to do the work that awe requires.”
And so he brings his attention to the greatest hotdog stand in Iceland and to the film Harvey and to music and to his Kentucky bluegrass lawn. As you might expect, 24 hour news and viruses (and the suburban lawn) get very few stars. Things that encourage community and wonder and honesty receive more. Mario Kart gets four stars, Monopoly gets one. His daughter’s lesson on whispering gets four.
One of my favorite moments in the book is when Green watches the 2013 invasion of Iraq on CNN (two stars) with his friend Hussein, who’d grown up in Kuwait. The reporter talks about the anger and bitterness in the streets as the camera focuses on black spray-painted graffiti, supposedly an illustration of the reporter’s point. Hussein laughs, and John asks why. The graffiti says, “Happy birthday, sir, despite the circumstances.”
So it goes, as any reader of Slaughterhouse Five would say.
I thought about Kurt Vonnegut a lot while reading this book. Grappling with despair and a world gone mad, their responses are similar. How do you live, and for what, when you’ve experienced the atrocities of World War II? How do you go on in the face of global warming and pandemics? What do you live for? What can we do for sure about anything? And about a third of the way through The Anthropocene Reviewed I realized, again as is true of Vonnegut’s collected nonfiction, the consistency and grace and love of the worldview that comes increasingly into focus and beats back despair. One critic used the phrase “memoiristic empathy” when referring to Green’s essays, and yes, I thought, that’s exactly right. It applies to Vonnegut as well: empathy for the individual reading the book, empathy for your own lost innocence, and empathy and love for humanity as a whole. While it’s true that humans with their too-big and often malfunctioning brains (a Vonnegut phrase) make colossal collective mistakes, that’s not all we do. “Suffering and injustice are not rare,” Green said to a group of Butler University students in November, 2020, around the time he was finishing up this book, “but neither are wonder and joy.”
I should say that you don’t have to buy this book. You can listen to the pieces for free online, but you’d miss the narrative arc that’s only evident in the ordering. The podcasts are pieces. This is the whole. You’d also miss the subtle difference between Green’s more searching, perhaps more earnest, voice on the page and the voice that reaches for irony, the joke, in the podcasts. But that contrast also tells you something.
And you’d miss the whimsy of the book itself: “I wanted to sign this book for you in the hope it would give you the same little moment of joy I always feel when I come across an autographed book,” he writes at the beginning. And yes, every one of the first edition hardcovers are signed with a sweet green pen. Green goes on to review the copyright page of his book (not a fan, though he likes the font) and the half-page title, giving everything a once over as the book unfolds before you.
And so let me end by saying that I give John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed absolutely all the stars, every last one of them in all their glittery glory. A Milky Way of stars. (And should you worry about star inflation, don’t. I’m aware that they’re imaginary and am also aware that stars are not the point and also, that they’re not exhaustible.) I am grateful for the way Green (and his brother and his wife through projects like Crash Course and the Art Assignment and the Project for Awesome) reaches out to the reader, many of them (but not all) young adults struggling with cynicism and needing a reason to find hope and meaning. I’m grateful for his honesty, his humor, his hard work, his project.
Like another book written and published during the pandemic, Zadie Smith’s Intimations, this book gives us a road map to meaning during difficult times. The road maps are similar. As poet Mary Oliver wrote: Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it. It’s the telling about it that the artist gives us.
I’ll leave you with this, from Green’s essay “Sycamores”:
“I think God that’s a beautiful tree. But for now I’m just looking up at that tree, thinking about how it turned air and water and sunshine into wood and bark and leaves, and I realize that I am in the vast, dark shade of this immense tree. I feel the solace of that shade, the relief it provides. And that’s the point. My son grabs my wrist, pulling my gaze from the colossal tree to his thin-fingered hand. ‘I love you,’ I tell him. I can hardly get the words out. I give sycamore trees five stars.”
 The Anthropocene: “The current geological age, in which human activity has profoundly shaped the planet and its biodiversity”—John Green
Susan Neville is the author of six works of creative nonfiction: Fabrication: Essays on Making Things and Making Meaning; Twilight in Arcadia; Iconography: A Writer’s Meditation; Butler’s Big Dance; Sailing the Inland Sea, and Light. Her collections of short fiction and hybrid fiction include In the House of Blue Lights, winner of the Richard Sullivan prize and listed as a ‘Notable Book’ by the Chicago Tribune; Invention of Flight, winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction; and Indiana Winter. Her stories have appeared in the Pushcart Prize anthology and in anthologies including Extreme Fiction (Longman) and The Story Behind the Story (Norton.) She lives in Indianapolis with her husband and two children and teaches writing at Butler University and in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. More information available at www.susan-neville.com.
Monthly reviews of books written by Indiana authors are made possible by the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Awards and Indiana Humanities. Opinions expressed in this review are solely those of the reviewer, not any affiliated entity.