Review: The Anthropocene Reviewed

Happy May, everyone! Spring weather is finally upon us here in New York City, and it’s putting pep in my step as I bring you today’s book review: The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green. Unlike his usual YA fiction, this is a collection of short, personal essays penned on a variety of topics. It can get a little bleak at times — this might have been a little too dark and quippy to be on my winter bookshelf — but reading it as the days grow longer and the sun glows brighter has allowed me to stay positive and have hope for the future.

Anthropocene (noun): the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.

Let’s back up a bit. What even is an “anthropocene” anyway? As explained in this book, the anthropocene is the current state of the planet, where humans are essentially the most powerful race and have the most impact on our world. In a way, we’re basically zooming out from terms like ethnocentrism, to something more globally “human-centric.” From accelerating climate change with fossil fuels, to littering our waters with discarded plastic, humans have more influence than any other living creature on Earth. John Green takes a bunch of topics that seemingly have no correlation to each other, but all relate back to the subject at hand: the anthropocene.

“I know the world will survive us – and in some ways it will be more alive.”

This book actually started as a podcast he did with his brother, Hank, a few years ago. For written publication, he compiled transcripts from those podcast episodes and expanded upon the ideas presented in them, along with adding essays on brand new topics. A lot of his editorial work takes place during the height of The Pandemic (Does this get capitalized? It’s a new-enough situation. Has anyone decided yet? Who’s in charge here?).

It is May of 2020, and I do not have a brain well suited for this.”

Reading “post-Pandemic” literature (though we aren’t quite out of the woods yet) produced an odd sensation in me. Seeing it written and mentioned like it was just another historical era, like The Great Depression or The Cold War–as though it is something that has passed us–was almost refreshing in a way. Like the worst was finally over, and we were factly on the way to recovery. No if’s, and’s, or take-backs.

The introduction then talks about John Green’s history of how he got into writing: by starting as a book reviewer on a blog (just like me!). He brings up that nowadays, almost everything is given a review out of 5 stars, but back then there was no such thing. It wasn’t really until Amazon that everything was given a numerical review–even though most things aren’t so simply quantified.

“The five-star scale doesn’t really exist for humans; it exists for data aggregation systems, which is why it did not become standard until the internet era. Making conclusions about a book’s quality from a 175-word review is hard work for artificial intelligences, whereas star ratings are ideal for them.”

He then proceeds to review the topic of every one of his essays on a five-star scale, from the Polio vaccine to Super Mario Kart, which is ironically hilarious. He even rates his own book on the copyright page, which I totally missed until my fellow book clubber pointed it out to me. He’s casually witty like that.

To put it frankly, I both love and hate John Green’s writing style. I hate his Charles-Dickens-but-more-interesting way of overcomplicating things that could have been simple if he just phrased them like a normal person. At the same time, however, I love his poetic words and how he makes the most frivolous sentences seem magical. As someone who has read a few of his YA novels, it was fascinating to see here that his nonfiction voice is exactly the same as his writing style for fiction. I’d know his words anywhere.

“life is never simple paths- only dizzying labyrinths folding in on themselves”

As a PSA, I don’t suggest reading this novel as a start-to-finish “pick up and read” project. I found it the most successful as a “bathroom reader” or coffee table book. It was the most enticing to jump around; just crack it open and pick a topic that sounded interesting.

“I suppose I missed writing, but in a way you miss someone you used to love.”

As a PSA: if you’re a fan of his podcast and wanted to read the book, I feel compelled to tell you that you might sometimes read things that were word-for-word taken from the transcription. It isn’t always that way–he expanded on some essays and wrote some completely new ones–but  it deserves pointing out. It’s not similar enough that you can follow along as if it’s an audiobook (one of those also exists for the written publication) but being that the podcast is free, I recommend giving it a listen before you buy it. It’s also available on Spotify, Apple Music, and all the other usual listening places if you’re interested. The individual episodes are a really good length for a 20-ish minute drive. Or, you can do like I did and just borrow the e-book from the library.

“Gatsby is a critique of the American Dream. The only people who end up rich or successful in the novel are the ones who start out that way. Almost everyone else ends up dead or destitute. And it’s a critique of the kind of vapid capitalism that can’t find anything more interesting to do with money than try to make more of it. The book lays bare the carelessness of the entitled rich—the kind of people who buy puppies but won’t take care of dogs, or who purchase vast libraries of books but never read any of them.”

Overall, I really enjoyed this quirky little book. I could wax poetic for hours, go on and on ….
OR, I could be like John Green and quantify my review like a robot.

I give The Anthropocene Reviewed four stars. ✰✰✰✰