Ever the history nerd, I was all too willing when my boyfriend suggested we watch ten-minute, “crash course” youtube videos on World History. The host was not the stereotypical, boring teacher from middle school who fixated on dates and the reigns of King X and Queen Y. No, John Green was a dude who was passionate about history.
I majored in history in college because I was fascinated with the stories of all these people who led radically different lives than me. I wanted to know what books they read, what they ate, how they fell in love, how they died. John Green helped me remember how excited I was on the first day of a new semester, when I walked into my class on Revolutions or my seminar on “History and Memory,” my brain giddy with all the things I was going to read and talk about, my world expanding.
Intrigued by the fast-talking, excitable host on Crash Course World History, I picked up his most recent novel, The Fault in Our Stars. A friend had gushed over it some months ago and I too spent a couple intense nights engrossed and unmoving on my couch with the book. The quick-moving plot didn’t keep the characters from shining in all their complexity: happy, snippy, sad, scared, mean, arrogant, adorable. These characters were deeply human.
I caught glimpses of myself as a teenager in the awkward and hesitant love blossoming between Hazel and Augustus, in their attachment to certain books. Like Hazel, I’ve also felt strangely possessive of a book in some way, as if speaking about it would somehow tarnish my connection to it. Hazel’s, An Imperial Affliction, which “seemed to understand [her] in weird and impossible ways,” propelled the plot. Through their story, we also see how books matter.
Engaging the Internets
In his introduction to the Crash Course Literature series, John Green talks about “reading as an act of empathy.” When we open a book and delve into a story we delve into the life of another. This is a rare gift. To paraphrase David Foster Wallace, our own perspective and experiences limit us in what we can truly understand of another person. We’re basically trapped in our own skulls.
Books, however, help us out of this bind. They show us the thoughts and feelings of people who are not like us, from their perspective, on their terms. Reading their stories should make us more understanding, more receptive to the differentness of other people’s lives. Thoughtfully reading, John Green reminds us, connects us to other people and gives us the tools to share our ideas.
And what better place to communicate those ideas nowadays than online? In a TedX talk, John Green described the communities of learning that have popped up online — from physics and math to psychology and history — because there are people, like nerdfighters, who want to be engaged, who want to ask questions and learn. I see this as the best of all possibilities on the Internet.
This desire to engage and understand and not to fight, not keep yourself walled off from others, has the potential for tremendous power. As John Green noted during his talk, “The manner in which we map the world changes the world.” And I believe him. After all, it’s difficult if not impossible to communicate with someone who wants to blast off about how right they are, whose comments are soaked in irony.
I’m glad excitable, impassioned John Green — and people like him — are out in the world, creating and imagining. Whether through a nerdy video or through a kick-ass novel, he’s helping us understand the world around us and the people who live here better.