Saturday, November 29, 2008

John Green is my hero.

I mean, seriously. An excerpt from
A Speech I Wrote for the ALAN Conference...
"I want to talk today about my new book, and I also want to talk about a book I wish I’d written: M. T. Anderson’s two-volume novel The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, and I want to talk about the importance of classrooms as a place for intellectual discourse in the lives of teenagers, but I want to begin by discussing the most fascinating and complex individual I have ever had the privilege of knowing: Me.

Let me tell you what is, in my opinion, the central problem of human existence: I am stuck in my body, in my consciousness, seeing out of my eyes. I am the only me I ever get to be, and so I am the only person I can imagine endlessly complexly. That’s not the problem, actually. The problem is you. You are so busy taking in your own wondrousness that you can't be bothered to acknowledge mine.

When I was a kid, I believed in an embarrassingly total way that I was the only human being in the world and that all the other people, including my brother and parents and everybody, was in fact an alien, and that the aliens had created the entire world to do a series of controlled experiments on how a human child—me—would respond to various forms of trial and tribulation. And when I wasn’t around, they would take off their human costumes—the aliens had very advanced costuming technology, naturally—and they would do alien stuff. You know, go to the alien zoo and watch the alien local news and whatever else. I really believed this.

And obviously, on some level, this indicated the kind of massively narcissistic worldview that would later require decades of therapy to adjust. But in a way, I was right. I am the only person whose existence I can directly attest to. By the way, when I've talked about this in the past I've seen people nodding, like they also believed in their childhoods that they were the only real person in the world, and I would imagine that right now, some such people are probably feeling the comfort we feel when we learn that our delusions are shared, that we are not alone even in our darkest corners.

And to those people, I would like to say: Is it not possible that the aliens have sent me here today precisely to make you believe that everyone else IS a person, but that we are in fact all aliens, including me, the alien messenger boy sent here by my alien masters?

It is possible, isn’t it? I mean, I will allow that it is improbable. I will acknowledge that you are all likely to be people. The probability that I am the only person in the world is extremely small—it is that number that infinitely approaches zero but isn’t zero. And yet. On some level, I have to take it on faith that you are as complex as I am, that your pain and joy and grief are as real and as meaningful as my own.

This is why I wrote my new novel, Paper Towns: I wanted to write about the way we draw the world and its inhabitants, and the relationship between those drawings and the actual world. It’s about what the imagination can and cannot accomplish when it comes to imagining other people. As writers and educators, we are literally in the business of celebrating the powers of the imagination. And it is very powerful, indeed. But can we inhabit someone else’s consciousness? Can the blade of grass that is me travel through the root system and become the blade of grass that is someone else? Can we imagine places into reality? I think we both can and cannot, which is both the hope and the hopelessness of the species.

But let me say this: I think this is why we read. I mean, finally, what does reading do that movies and video games and television do not? I would argue that books, more than other media, allow us to live inside the lives of others because we have to translate scratches on a page into ideas and make the story ours. We become co-creators of the story, and they allow us to inhabit someone else's body for a while. Books give us the faith that others are real, that their joy and pain should matter to us, and that ours can matter to them. In some ways, this confirms our own existence, because most of our mattering is in the context of one another.

And this cannot be accomplished in books without what one kid I recently met referred to as “all that English stuff.” All that English stuff—metaphor and symbolism and the creative use of language. All That English Stuff, that teenagers distrust. All That English Stuff, about which readers always ask me, "Did you really mean that or is my teacher just beating this to death?" (I meant it.) All That English Stuff is how we as writers and readers re-create the experience of being one’s self. Inside my body, I see myself in nonliteral ways constantly—in fact, it’s impossible for me to imagine something so endlessly fascinating and complex as myself without symbol and simile and metaphor. And so I would argue that it is through all that English stuff that we as readers are able to truly experience another’s world. It is through the nonliteral facets of writing that readers move from Seeing Jane Run to Being Jane Running. In the end, All That English Stuff is not about analyzing a novel for the sake of analyzing it or sucking all the emotion out of it. All That English Stuff is an integral part of living inside someone else’s head for a moment. All That English Stuff is the glorious pleasure of almost knowing how you came to be connected to characters you do not know and who may not exist. Walt Whitman said it like this: “You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, / But I shall be good health to you nevertheless, / And filter and fibre to your blood.” Whitman does not say you will not know who he is or what he means; he says you will hardly know. To me, Hardly knowing is the ecstatic pleasure of critical reading, and I think we make a mistake every time we imply to young people that their brains are not yet ready for that joy."

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