I discovered John Green through his best-seller The Fault in Our Stars. I loved it so much I went looking for other books he’s written. Turns out he’s written quite a few. Five, to be precise. Plus a novella, short stories, reviews, articles for mental floss and a bunch of other stuff.
I chose Looking for Alaska as my next foray. Published in 2006, it was his debut novel. Although he’s become more famous over the years – The Fault in Our Stars was published in 2014 to widespread acclaim, became a major motion picture and was named TIME Magazine’s #1 Fiction Book of the Year – his early books appear to be no less brilliant.
John Green refuses to see teenagers as clueless kids who need to be taught the lessons of life by adults. He’s quite happy for them to be brilliantly intelligent and allows his characters an unquenchable thirst for knowledge while simultaneously being funny and kinda cool.
Looking for Alaska follows Miles Halter to boarding school as, in his final years of school, he seeks out something more, a ‘Great Perhaps’, in the dying words of the poet Francois Rabelais. There he meets the brilliant, sexy and more-than-slightly-unhinged Alaska and a raft of other colourful characters.
This is one of those books that is hard to review without giving spoilers, but you’ll realise when you open it that something is coming (and it’s not winter, just to be clear…). The first chapter is labelled ‘One Hundred and Thirty-Six Days Before’ and the countdown continues until around the half way point when the days start counting up ‘After’.
Central to the story is Miles’ obsession with the dying words of famous people. He’s memorised them all from biographies and anthologies. This is overlaid with Alaska’s fascination with books in general – she has great towers of books in her room that she plans to read some day – and with the philosophy of suffering in general.
I loved the way John Green has managed to weave fairly complex philosophical concepts into a story for and about teenagers, and has done it in a way that makes perfect sense coming out of the mouths of sixteen and seventeen year olds.
The idea that our kids can, and should, have a really good think about the big questions of life really struck a chord with me. The book doesn’t answer a whole of lot of life’s big questions but, like all great books, it certainly leaves you thinking about them.
I’ll leave you with this one from the high school’s religion teacher, nominally referred to as The Old Man:
Islam, Christianity and Buddhism each have founder figures – Muhammad, Jesus and the Buddha, respectively. And in thinking about these founder figures, I believe we must finally conclude that each brought a message of radical hope. To seventh-century Arabia, Muhammad brought the promise that anyone could find fulfilment and everlasting life through allegiance to the one true God. The Buddha held out hope that suffering could be transcended. Jesus brought the message that the last shall be first, that even tax collectors and lepers – the outcasts – had cause for hope. And so that is the question I leave you with in this final: What is your cause for hope?