I love gift-giving season. I love spending time thinking of the precise present for a picky person. As stressful as this time of year can be, I enjoy spending it thinking of something that will make a friend or relative feel cared for and understood, and that will brighten their day, be it once (a theatre ticket to a show they’ll love) or all year long (a subscription to a weekly magazine). In fact, why wait for gift-giving season? One of the highlights of my year was stopping by a used book and records sale and finding a record, made in 1964, of all of John F. Kennedy’s best speeches, in memory of the just-slain President. My mom was just 13 when it was made, and it’s going to make the best goddamn for-no-real-reason-I-just-love-you-and-thought-you’d-appreciate-this present for her. It was a dollar, and on that day, even though I rarely carry cash, I happened to have a dollar on me. It was fucking awesome. You know how on Parks and Rec, Leslie Knope is basically an Olympic-level giver of gifts? I’m not quite that elite yet, but I’m on the farm team and I am gunning for the majors.
This year, though, I bought the same gift for many, many people I love: The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green. I often give people books, because to give someone a book is to give them magic and knowledge and escape and it’s the closest you can get to buying them a round-the-world ticket to see everything worth seeing on this earth. But this year, I bought about a dozen copies of this one book. Every time a birthday would come up, every time I sat down to consult my list of Christmas/War on Christmas presents to buy, I found myself writing: “TFIOS” next to people’s names.
If you haven’t heard of or read The Fault in Our Stars (statistically unlikely, given its reign on multiple bestseller lists, best-of lists, and the fact that its film adaptation, starring Shailene Woodley, is coming to a movie theatre near you), then here’s what you need to know: it’s a book about Hazel and Augustus, two teenagers with terminal illnesses, who fall in love with each other. And as tragic and depressing as that sounds, this book is uplifting as fuck. Not because the characters are so noble and strong and wise. They are, sometimes, but they also repeatedly point out that this is a trope in narratives about ill people and children and ill children (I’m looking at you, Beth March). It’s uplifting because it gives you hope that stories about romantic relationships based on mutual respect, a shared worldview, and in which intelligence is the most attractive thing about a woman, can catch on and be wildly popular.
You might know John Green as one half of the Vlogbrothers, the Youtube-famous, now kind-of-actually-famous pair who, a few years ago, decided to see what would happen if, for one year, they communicated with each other only through four-minute Youtube videos. Around them grew a community of fans calling themselves Nerdfighters, and now, the Vlogbrothers Hank and John Green preside over a staggering list projects: John writes books and makes fantastically entertaining educational videos about history and literature, Hank has a band and produced the widely-loved Emmy Award-winning Youtube series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and makes fantastically entertaining educational videos about chemistry and biology, both of them run the Project for Awesome and the Foundation to End World Suck and on and on it goes. John also has two young children. I have no idea how or when he sleeps.
All of this is to say, if you don’t know John Green, there is probably something in the Vlogbrothers’ catalog of projects that will appeal to you. For me, it’s that in the last few years, these guys, along with, say, Neil de Grasse Tyson and Tina Fey, have done more to make nerdiness cool than anyone else on the planet. If I found out tomorrow that they, along with de Grasse Tyson, Fey, and Rachel Maddow, were part of a governmental program to increase the popular appeal of nerdiness, I wouldn’t be in the least surprised. These guys are nerds, and they aren’t ashamed of it — and they’ve certainly made this nerd less ashamed of it.
So this book. Why this book? Why this YA book for so many of my friends and relatives, none of whom are in the YA target audience, and some of whom are (sorry, Dad) Pretty Old As? Because this book is about earnestness and empathy in an age of irony and self-interest — and in the face of conditions that invite irony and self-interest. And no matter your age, that’s something we can all get behind, and I would argue that in 2013, those qualities have never been more important.
The characters in this book, much like Green himself, are not afraid to care. Green has been quite vocal about his disdain for analyses of authorial intent, and has said himself that the author doesn’t matter all that much, so I’ll just say this: Hazel and Augustus, though they’re capable of irony and sarcasm, aren’t constrained by it. They employ it, but they aren’t defined by it.
Despite the rise of nerd chic — Green celebrates nerdiness because nerds “are allowed to be unironically enthusiastic about stuff… Nerds are allowed to love stuff, like jump-up-and-down-in-the-chair-can’t-control-yourself love it” — it’s no longer cool to be earnest, but these kids really are, especially Hazel, who narrates the book. Again, this isn’t surprising given Green’s worldview, which, though laced with snark, is that of a man with wide eyes and a huge heart.
Then there’s the fact that Hazel is so damn smart. She’s not perfect — she’s maddeningly flawed, in some ways — but she is witty, and well-read, and perhaps because of her illness and perhaps in spite of it, wise beyond her years. This is one of the most common criticisms I’ve heard of the book, that it’s hard to buy that the heroine is really only 17, that you can hear thirty-something-year-old John Green too much in her voice, but I don’t hear that. I hear an unusually perceptive teenager, whose powers of perception and empathy are what make her heroic, just as every hero or heroine has a special strength or ability that sets them apart.
At the heart of this book is another book, Hazel’s favorite — An Imperial Affliction. She thinks of it as “her” book, just as she thinks of her body as her body (as she has cancer, of course, her body is in some ways not her body anymore, and as for the book being hers, well… I won’t spoil). She spends much of The Fault in Our Stars trying to figure out this other book, and she is loath to tell other people — except the people she really cares about — about this book and about how much it means to her. I don’t feel that way about The Fault in Our Stars. I loved this book (after I hated it for making me sob), and I want to share these earnest, whipsmart kids with everyone I love this year.
Green’s definition of a nerd is someone who is “enthusiastic about the miracle of human consciousness.” If that’s nerdy, I want everyone in my life to be even nerdier than they already are — and saying “I love you” in the form of this book is a damn good place to start.