For much of the past year, one of the conversations I’ve had a few times, and seen other people have online, is: “Are we going to want to write/read about the pandemic, once it’s all over? Will there be great books about 2020, or will we just want to forget it all?”
I’ve now read two great books about 2020, and I’m going to tell you about both of them. This is the first.
The Anthropocene Reviewed is, on the surface, not a book about 2020. It’s a collection of essays, most of which appeared on a podcast that began airing in 2018. Its subjects — various aspects of our human-centred planet, minutely analyzed and rated on a five-star scale — range from ancient times to very recent history, but also touch on geography, anthropology, biology, and a lot of other -ologies. Its other subject, author John Green’s own life, ranges from 1977 to the present (and hopefully well beyond, but that’s outside the scope of this book). None of that content is specific to a modern-day Journal of the Plague Year, 2020/2021.
The premise of the book (and the podcast that preceded it) sounds like it could be merely silly, or merely intellectually interesting, but these essays are not merely anything. Whether Green is writing about the Lascaux cave paintings or about scratch-and-sniff stickers (only two of his many and varied topics), he is engaged in a practice of paying close attention — to who we are as humans, to how we have shaped and are shaping our planet, and also to his own experience with those things. Through the medium of exploring all these diverse places and things, he also explores being bullied as a child, adolescent friendships, falling in love, getting dumped, having a nervous breakdown, living with OCD, getting married, having children, and — oh yes — living through a global pandemic.
Although many of these pieces were written and pocasted in their original form before March 2020, the book was edited and found its final form in the Pandemic Times, and that awareness, while not present on every page, is certainly threaded throughout the collection of essays. Pieces that I remember hearing earlier on the podcast have been updated with thoughts that were on Green’s mind when he was shaping these essays into a book. One of the new essays (which I thought had been on the podcast because I know I’d heard Green talking about it earlier, but it was actually discussed in both a Vlogbrothers and an Art Assignment video — two of Green’s other projects — back in 2019) is about August Sander’s painting Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance. It reflects on how this photograph was taken shortly before the outbreak of the First World War and how the young Germans in the famous photograph could not have known what awaited them in the next four years. Against this story, Green juxtaposes the memory of a photograph of his own — one of himself, his wife and some friends with a group of their children, the adults with arms around each other, the children in a tangle of play, taken in early 2020. We are reminded of how eerily a photograph freezes a moment in time, a moment when we don’t know what’s coming, what will happen to make that photograph unthinkable just a few months later.
These reflections on what it’s like to live through 2020 are sometimes glancing reflections; at other times, as with the story of the song “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” or the final piece (which exists only in the audiobook, not in the printed version of the book) about the smallpox vaccine, the COVID-19 context is integral to the piece. I’ve written elsewhere about how the podcast episode with “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is so integral to my memories of spring 2020, of coming out of lockdown here in St. John’s and listened to the podcast while walking my dog on the first truly summery day, crying uncontrollably.
There’s a lot of crying with this book, even with the pieces I’d heard before as podcast episodes. I don’t know if I would have cried as much reading the print book (which I also bought) as I did hearing the audiobook in John’s voice, but I couldn’t get through “You’ll Never Walk Alone” or “Googling Strangers” or “Auld Lang Syne” or several others without tears — however, there are also wryly funny moments, and insightful moments, and just weird moments. This is a book, in the broadest possible sense, about what it means to be human on this planet — and also what it means to be a very specific human living in a particular time and place, editing a book about being human in the middle of a global pandemic, wondering what hope means and where to find it. While John Green never set out to write a “pandemic book,” I’d argue he has written one of the definitive ones.