John Green’s Lifework, Reviewed On a 5 Star Scale
“When people write reviews, they are really writing a kind of memoir.”
—The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green
I first become aware of the Vlogbrothers when most of the internet does: in 2007, when Accio Deathly Hallows hit the front page of YouTube, performed by Hank Green. This is before the last book came out (of course) and before J.K. Rowling’s blatant transmisogyny sours even my memories of the series. This is an anthem I can get behind: I am also counting down the days. I go on to wait 12 hours outside a bookstore to be first in line for the seventh book. I read most of it one night, terrified that someone will spoil it for me when I go to work at (another) bookstore the next day. I am immersed in the fandom, and Vlogbrothers are, too.
I don’t subscribe to their channel, though. There is no need to. The Vlogbrothers are always on the trending page, constantly recommended to me. I watch their videos often, but not religiously. I especially enjoy John Green’s philosophical videos, which go on to become the Thoughts From Places series. His internal process feels like mine: a little over-analytical, maybe, and definitely influenced by anxiety — but empathetic, concerned with how to live a good life and how to best treat each other.
In 2007, John Green has two books out: Looking for Alaska and An Abundance of Katherines. I likely shelve them at work, and the occasional person comes in looking for them, but it will be years before his name becomes synonymous with YA lit. I don’t pick either of them up, yet.
In 2012, The Fault In Our Stars is released, which changes his legacy forever. It becomes a runaway success, earning him a legion of fans. At the time, Tumblr is my internet home base, and John Green (as fishingboatproceeds) becomes a big presence on the platform. He is many young readers’ entry into loving books and reading. The Vlogbrothers’ nerdy, slightly awkward, enthusiastic presence online is exactly the tone of the bookish internet at the moment. I don’t follow John, but like on YouTube, his content is always in my peripheral.
I go on to read The Fault in Our Stars (or TFiOS, pronounced tiff-ee-ohss, as the fans refer to it) to see what all the talk was about. We keep the book in a big display behind the counter at the bookstore I work at, since every other person seems to be coming in for it. I stay up reading it, unable to pull myself away. At the end of the book I cry — but I feel frustrated, like I have been emotionally manipulated.
This is also the year Crash Course starts. I am 22, and I enjoy the chance to dabble in learning new things with an accessible format. Despite currently taking university English classes, I enjoy watching Crash Course English Literature and often notice things I hadn’t when studying it formally.
At this point, John Green seems to be the golden author of the internet. But this will soon change.
By 2013, Tumblr’s attitude to him seems to have shifted. He gets a “Your Fav is Problematic” callout with a real mix of accusations. Some are accurate, applying to things John said, regretted, and has since apologized for. Others are unfounded, or treated quotations from characters in his books as his own personal thoughts, and a handful are up for interpretation. The golden era is beginning to end, but it will get a whole lot worse before it got better.
This is the year I go to LeakyCon. I had always wanted to go, but this year it’s in Portland: a different country, but at least the same coast as I am on! I go with my partner and stay with family. It is my first time taking a trip that I arrange myself. It is a transformative experience.
I attend a Nerdfighter gathering, though John Green doesn’t attend and I don’t identify as a Nerdfighter. That is the same con where I meet Mark Oshiro, who I idolize, and we go out to pinball afterwards. This is before they published their first book, when they are known as “Mark Reads.” When Anger is a Gift comes out, I go on to handsell it proudly. Although I haven’t seem them since Book Riot Live, I still consider them a close friend.
The convention ends with the Esther Earl Rocking Charity Ball in honour of Esther Earl, who also inspired The Fault In Our Stars. We wave lights in the air and sing at the top of our lungs, especially when the night (and convention) ends with “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” I cry, feeling surrounded by my nerdy bookish community, who can be enthusiastic without shame. Transitioning back to everyday life when I get home is difficult.
I go again the next year, in Orlando. Standing in Hogwarts with (fake) snow falling around me, just my friends and me in an exclusive night tour, feels like the most magical moment of my life so far. Now that moment has such mixed emotions for me, and I resent Rowling even more for making her work synonymous with hatred of trans people. (My now-ex that I was standing beside then, equally wrapped up in the magic, is trans. I can only imagine how they feel about that moment now.)
The Vlogbrothers celebrate Esther Earl day every year since she passed in 2010. She was a big part of the Vlogbrothers community. When asked how she would like a day in her honour celebrated, she said she wanted people to tell their loved ones that they love them. Every year, John and Hank tell each other that they love each other in their videos. It’s always obvious that they do, but it’s a reminder to not leave those things unsaid.
During this time, I listen to John Green’s audiobooks while doing mindless work. This is when I worked in the shipping department at the bookstore, and there is a lot of rote work involved. I listen to his entire back catalogue, and I rate each of them 3 stars. I enjoy parts of them, but they never really stay with me. Although I recognize that several attempt to deconstruct the manic pixie dream girl trope, I do feel like there aren’t a lot of well-rounded female characters. I prefer his videos to his books.
I contribute to their yearly charity fundraiser, The Project for Awesome. I buy the random Nerdfighter merch perk and happily receive Nerdfighter art — though I still don’t call myself a Nerdfighter.
In 2014, The Fault In Our Stars movie comes out, and John Green’s perception on the internet changes irreversibly. Suddenly, he is no longer the awkward cool fandom dad. He is being constantly interviewed, and he’s being praised as the author who has made young adult literature popular. Never mind that women and authors of colour had been doing this for years. While John shouts out other authors in his videos and never makes these claims himself, the media response is out of his hands.
The movie brings new attention to John Green outside of the bookish community. Many readers became resentful that mainstream media seemed to want to single him out as the only YA author worth talking about, the one who had singlehandedly changed the genre. On Tumblr, he becomes associated with being egotistical and his book as pretentious and/or badly written and/or sexist. His posts are reblogged and edited so that it looks like he is saying…inappropriate things.
By the time John leaves Tumblr, the platform seems to have done a 180 shift. No longer seeing him as the leader of their community, his books are mocked and the edited posts became a viral meme. (Tumblr would remove this editing feature soon after, likely as a result of this.) He is accused of writing manic pixie dream girls, though his books are attempts to deconstruct this trope. His writing is critiqued. The movie’s lines become their own punchlines.
There are five years between The Fault In Our Stars and his next book, Turtles All the Way Down, and John talks about how the overwhelming reception for The Fault In Our Stars made writing another book difficult — at times, he believed he wouldn’t write another book.
In 2017, Turtles All the Way Down comes out. I hear it’s his best book yet and has own voices representation for OCD. I never get around to reading it.
The next year, Hank Green’s first book comes out. John promotes it proudly. It has a bisexual woman main character, so I read and end up loving it. I rate it 5 stars. John seems to have no qualms with his brother having success in his domain.
YouTube changes its algorithm and no longer promotes the Vlogbrothers videos as frequently. I subscribe, and am reminded of how much I enjoy John Green’s videos. They are succinct and thoughtful. I continue to watch them almost every day all these years later.
The Vlogbrothers don’t try to optimize for the new algorithm. John explains that they’re happy with the followers they have, and that the comments sections are nicer places to be since they’ve fallen off the trending page. They continue to hold yearly Project for Awesome fundraisers that raise millions of dollars. In 2019, they pledge to focus on raising money to improve maternal health Sierra Leone for the next five years.
In December of 2019, I graduate from the teaching program. I get hired as a teacher on call (substitute teacher). I substitute teach December through March, before spring break. In the second week of March, I interview with two other school districts. We stay six feet apart and don’t shake hands, but there’s no lockdown yet. I go on EI for spring break. School doesn’t come back. Two weeks of unemployment stretches into indeterminate months. My partner works in retail, and he’s also temporarily laid off. Neither of us know if we’ll work next week or not until next year. My partner’s anxiety is better than it’s been in years. With no pressure to go to work, there’s no guilt of missing work.
I have had anxiety my whole life, but it’s never been as bad as when I was a child. It consumed me then, made me incapable of leaving the house, sleeping, or talking to friends. As an adult, I’ve learned how to steadily gently push against my comfort zone so that it doesn’t interfere with my life.
In 2020, I stop being able to read or listen to audiobooks. My attention span is shot. Although it started in 2015, I begin listening to Dear Hank and John. I go through the entire back catalogue. I listen while folding laundry, walking the dogs, showering, doing dishes, playing video games — this is the first time in my life I play video games. I listen so I won’t have to be alone with my thoughts. This “comedy podcast about death” is exactly where my head is. It reminds me to be curious. It reminds me that we’ll all die, but that doesn’t mean life is meaningless.
Without my knowledge, my comfort zone shrinks and shrinks the longer I don’t leave the house, until one day the idea of walking the dogs around the block seizes me with so much anxiety that it seems impossible. I can’t wrap my head around it. If I take them out, do I wear a mask? There aren’t many people in this area, and we don’t have a mask mandate (at the time), and cases are low, but should I just to be safe? If I wear a mask, do I still wear my headphones? That feels claustrophobic, but walking without any distraction of a podcast sounds even worse. If I go out without a mask, can I just cross the street if I see someone? But what if they have a dog and the dogs want to greet each other? What if there’s no sidewalk on the other side of the street? What if there’s traffic? What if it’s someone I always stop and chat with? I am overwhelmed. I stay home.
Listening to Dear Hank and John makes me feel better. Although I won’t pretend I know what it’s like to have OCD, I can relate to John’s thought processes, especially during the pandemic. I, too, am filled with a low hum of anxiety in every direction. Listening to someone else grappling with this, especially in 2020, helps soothe my nerves. Eventually, I will leave the house again. Eventually, walking the dogs around the block will shrink down to an ankle high hurdle. Unbeknownst to me, I will soon be teaching my first class — a rowdy group of teenage hockey players trapped in a small portable classroom, with no masks. At that moment, when I am losing myself playing six hours of No Man’s Sky at a time and listening to endless podcasts, I can’t imagine it. I also won’t imagine that after finishing my first class, I’d get a job at Book Riot working from home, which will feel very different than being unemployed at home.
In 2020, John Green livestreams drawing hundreds of thousands of circles, inspired by Hiroyuki Doi. He draws them because repetitive actions are soothing to his OCD — just as signing hundreds of thousands of books is — and to better understand what 170,000 looks like: at the time, the current deaths in the U.S. attributed to COVID.
After I catch up with Dear Hank and John, I listen to The Anthropocene Reviewed. It’s my favourite thing John Green has done. It pairs the philosophical explorations of Thoughts With Places with a more longform writing style and a calming narration. I listen to the entire back catalogue. I listen to the episode about Amy Krouse Rosenthal in the shower and sing along, “We’re here because we’re here because we’re here because we’re here…” I find myself crying, but this time I don’t feel manipulated. I feel connected. I feel connected to everyone trying to find meaning in this world. I think about the beauty and horror of mortality, about community and connection, about grief.
This year, I got a review copy of the audiobook of The Anthropocene Reviewed. I had just listened to the entire podcast, so most of it felt very familiar, but it reminded me of how these “reviews” encouraged me to think more deeply and complexly about the world and the people in it. When the book came out, I immediately went out and bought a new hardcover copy, just to have it (a signed one, of course). It’s the first time I’ve done that in many years.
I am not John Green, and I can’t write an episode of The Anthropocene Reviewed. While this post is inspired by the style, it’s not comparable. What writing this has done, though, has helped me reflect on my life through the lens of John Green’s work. What the lifework of John Green has come to symbolize in my life is the perils of being a known personality online: how quickly you can be idolized and vilified. It reminds me to try to navigate my online presence the best that I can, regardless. How can I use what voice I have to make the world a little bit better?
What I’ve always appreciated most about the Vlogbrothers is their willingness to apologize and grow. They have made mistakes, and I disagree with them in some aspects, but I always believe they are open to criticism and trying to be better. That is an example I hope that other creators see an emulate, especially since they’re now veterans to internet popularity. (I haven’t even mentioned their TikTok fame!)
I’m also reminded of how much the internet has changed. Despite (or because of) the “cringe” aspects of the early days of Tumblr, I miss that brief window when enthusiasm was celebrated and didn’t need to be masked in irony. It makes me happy to remember that LeakyCon with hundreds of teenage girls scream-singing the lyrics to “Strange Charm” by Hank Green and how teenagers now are also familiar with Hank, but this time from TikTok (and Crash Course, and maybe even his books!)
I tempted to end this without a rating, because it is of course impossible to boil down someone’s entire career into a star rating. I haven’t even read/watched/listened to most of John Green’s lifework, from his early career writing book reviews to videos I’ve never seen and likely projects I’m not even aware of. Still, John himself never shies away from this final line, and it’s what always reminds me that simplified ratings can never tell the whole story — a worthwhile reminder for a book community easily distracted by Goodreads and Amazon average ratings.
I give the lifework of John Green 4 stars.