When I was a senior in high school, a girl I dated introduced me to the work of John Green. But it wasn’t a book that she gave me. I was studying for AP European History, and she sent me a link to a Youtube video where John talked about the French Revolution. John Green and his brother, Hank, each post a video every week to a Youtube channel called vlogbrothers. I don’t know how much I realized it when I first started watching the channel, but I really needed something like vlogbrothers. There’s something wholesome about the content that John and Hank make, and it’s meant a lot to me since I started watching almost ten years ago. They were open in a way that I’d seen from few other men in my life. They earnestly tried to be—and talked about trying to be—good people. They wore glasses like me and sounded smart, and not only were they unashamed of their intelligence, they were popular; they were having fun.
But before he became popular on Youtube, John Green had already published his first novel, “Looking for Alaska,” which won the Printz Award in 2006 and is currently featured on PBS’s Great American Read. The novel follows its narrator, Miles “Pudge” Walter, and draws on Green’s own teenage experiences.
Miles is a little eccentric: he likes to memorize the last words of famous people. Even if your hobbies aren’t as morbid, you’ll probably feel like you understand him anyway. After the novel opens with his very sad, barely-attended birthday party, Miles is off to start his junior year at a new boarding school. He says he’s going—quoting the last words of Francois Rabelais—“to seek a Great Perhaps.” His quest is a search for meaning, and his Great Perhaps offers hope that it’s out there for him. At school, Miles starts to make friends. One friend, Alaska Young, looms larger than the rest. Miles likes her immediately, but he can never quite figure her out—and she already has a boyfriend. In the end, Miles is forced to question whether he loves Alaska or if only loves the version of her he invented in his head.
The novel is split into two sections: “Before” and “After,” with a tragedy sandwiched in between. I won’t give anything away, but it feels like something that could have happened at our own schools and to our own friends. The raw emotion of it rips you apart. It makes Miles’s search for meaning much more difficult. How do you move on with your life after something terrible has happened? Or, in the last words of Simon Bolivar: “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?”
At the center of John Green’s work is the respect he has for young people. He sees teenagers as the intelligent, developing people they are. But the fascinating thing about being young is that you are experiencing so much for the first time. The students in “Looking for Alaska” smoke their first cigarettes and drink their first cheap bottles of wine. They have their first crushes and their first kisses. They fall in love and have their hearts broken.
I’ve learned a lot of things from John Green over the years. I think the one that I take away most from “Looking for Alaska” is this: It’s not easy being a teenager. It’s intense, confusing and scary. But we’re very lucky to get to grow old.
Reviewer Kyle Tresnan works in the registrar's office at Penn State.