John Green and Growing Pains
Beginnings necessitate endings, and so, when I first set foot on the campus of Kenyon College, I said goodbye to a lot of things. I said goodbye to my family, my friends and a lot of my high school interests. It’s not that I was embarrassed about the books I read or the music I listened to in high school — far from it. But coming to Kenyon and hearing people talk expertly about books I’d never heard of made me want to expand, to stop rereading and try something new.
At 15, my favorite book was “The Fault in Our Stars” by Kenyon alum John Green ’00. At 16, my favorite book was “The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger. Now, at 21, I couldn’t tell you what my favorite book is. I could tell you that the short story collection I’m reading right now, “Too Much Happiness” by Alice Munro, is poignant and sad, providing stirring and nuanced portrayals of women around the age I am now. Tastes change, but we never really forget the first books we trusted and loved — the books that we read under the covers with a flashlight, or behind the desk in class. I may not read “Little House in the Big Woods” now with the same zest that I did as an eight-year-old, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hold a special place in my heart.
In some ways, it’s a relief to know that my reading tastes have changed. At 12, I loved the “Twilight” saga (yes, saga). I didn’t watch the movies, really, but I read and reread the books countless times throughout middle school. Later, upon hearing negative feedback about the series, I stopped rereading and moved on to other books. Last winter break, I saw “Breaking Dawn” on my bookshelf and thought: What if I still really like this book? What if my taste in literature is so off the mark that I’d rather read about vampire teenagers than mediations on humanity? So I read it — all 756 pages. And I thought it was corny. So, so, corny. Did I enjoy rereading it? Yes, actually, but not because of the writing itself. Rather, I could see all the tiny details that 13-year-old Carolyn picked up and treasured in the text. Thirteen-year-old Carolyn had staticky hair and hated her appearance. Bella Swan had naturally perfect hair and was effortlessly thin. Thirteen-year-old Carolyn didn’t know how to talk to boys; Bella Swan didn’t know how to nicely say no to the swarms of boys asking her out on dates. It’s not hard to see why the book appeals to middle schoolers, freshly insecure about their bodies and their social interactions.
“Twilight” aside, I don’t read a lot of young-adult books anymore. It’s not that I dislike them — it’s just that sometimes college can feel like one giant “to-read” list that just keeps getting longer. There are so many things I want to read and questions I want to grapple with. Reading YA novels was a pivotal prelude to my love of literature, but it’s not the only step. Sophomore year of high school, I was a hardcore Nerdfighter. I had a t-shirt. I watched all the Vlogbrother videos. I preordered a copy of “The Fault in Our Stars” and read it in one sitting. It was the perfect book for me at that time — a book that treated teenagers like people, a book that treated seriously problems like what to wear on a date while also grappling with much larger themes of life and death. My mom read it, and she liked it, too. So did my best friend. It felt important, and it made me feel important.
Now I’m a senior in college and John Green, who was once also a senior in college (this college) is coming out with another book. I’m currently up to my ears writing my senior thesis, but even so, I’ve heard the hype. But, unlike many teenagers (and adults!) around the country, I won’t be staying up all night to read it. Though I may have said goodbye to many of my high school interests when I got to college, I’m glad “Turtles All the Way Down” exists. Books like “The Fault in Our Stars” and “Paper Towns” reignited my interest in reading for pleasure in high school. I owe them a lot. Six years later, I’m glad to still be reading engaging, challenging texts, and I’m glad to be able to look back on my reading history and see how much my tastes have changed.
In fact, John Green himself says he’s happy to see his fans growing up and moving beyond his work. In an interview with Kenyon, he said, “It’s not bad news to me when they read [other authors’] books and their worlds are turned upside down. It’s great news. I don’t mind them growing up. I like that they grow up. I want to be a part of that process. I don’t want to be the end.”
Recently, one of my favorite professors told me,“You’re going to start experiencing a lot of lasts here soon,” My last Kenyon September has ended. My last Kenyon Halloween is right around the corner. People laugh at me when I say that I feel old here, but sometimes I do, as ridiculous as that is for a 21-year-old to say. I feel as if I’ve outgrown some things here — all-campus parties, for example, are not as much a source of joy as they used to be. It’s nice to see a new generation of Kenyon students take on Gambier, nice to see the hordes of first-years zip up their jackets and shuffle across campus to the Old Kenyon parties, nice to see them grouse about the Kenyon Krud as they blow their noses. Maybe I don’t feel old so much as experienced. I’ve learned so much here, in this place that has transformed the way I read and write, that has challenged every part of me to be better. I’m excited for 15-year-olds across the country to read John Green’s new book. I’m excited for them to read this book and feel important. I’m also excited for the next book they, and I, read.