John Green takes on the Anthropocene
The Anthropocene Reviewed
John Green 2021
What is the Anthropocene? It's the tiny bit of Earth history that has been dominated by human activity, a mere 15,000 or so year. That is but a blip in the billions of years that Earth has existed, and the last 200 years account for the most activity and lasting impact made by human civilizations. Author John Green takes on this era with a fascinating set of unrelated essays about his own personal experiences and historical events that he finds noteworthy and important.
John Green is better known for his fictional stories such as The Fault In Our Stars and Paper Towns, but The Anthropocene Reviewed is his first foray into the non-fiction arena. Green uses his excellent writing style and unique perspectives to tell some fascinating stories about the world we live in.
This book is a collection of musings on a wide variety of topics from Cave Paintings to Auld Lang Syne, with each essay resulting in a one to five star rating for how Mr. Green sees that item. Many of the essays originated from Green's podcast of the same name, which ran from 2018-2020, though he has edited and reworked them for the book. Some of the essays appear in the audiobook version that don't appear in the print book version.
Some of the musings are intensely personal, such as talking about Green's home town, Indianapolis, his favorite band, The Mountain Goats, and his favorite song, New Partner, all of which he rates highly. Green talks about how he uses notes to save ideas for books, and his struggle with viral meningitis.
But most of the book is fascinating mini-looks at topics that few of us think about or know about. Green discusses the store Piggly Wiggly in detail, going into how its founder transformed both the city of Memphis and the grocery business. He talks about Dr. Pepper, teddy bears, scratch and sniff stickers, air conditioning, the QWERTY keyboard, and the board game Monopoly- going into interesting details about how they originated. The Monopoly chapter was particularly enlightening as the game's humble beginnings are the opposite of its capitalist real estate empire end product.
He talks about esoteric topics that rarely get discussed, such as whispering, our capacity for wonder, sunsets, and the yips, (when athletes lose control of their bodies during critical performances). He goes from talking about Mario Kart power-ups that make games more competitive to the less favorable power-ups that the wealthy receive when the world gives them free stuff they don't even need.
I had three favorite essays that surprised me.
- Green goes into great detail about the Jimmy Stewart movie Harvey and how the story of a man who saw a magic invisible rabbit helped him through one of the darkest periods of his life.
- He tells the story of the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating contest in his usual fascinating backstory way and then ends with a racist incident that points right at the media (aka carnival barkers) and the damage they can do with the stories that they tell about those we see as "other".
- My favorite story was about the world's largest ball of paint. This is apparently a real exhibit that can be found in Indiana, and it consists of a baseball that has been painted and repainted thousands of times with new coats of paint until it is enormous. Anyone can paint a coat on it, and Green uses the metaphor of the coat of paint to point out each of our contributions in life. We all contribute our part, which eventually gets covered up, but it makes the ball even bigger and grander, just like with life.
The Anthropocene Reviewed is part autobiography, part 60 Minutes, part poetry, part history lesson, and part random musing. How do you describe a book that goes from the movie Penguins of Madagascar to The Hall of Presidents to Iceland's team handball gold medal in 2008? It's impossible, but at least I tried.
If you can't find the podcast, this book is a wonder. I give it five stars.