On the prompting of my childhood/adolescent/lifelong friend, J., I’m testing out a new way of starting reviews. At dinner last night she told me that she skimmed my reviews as quickly as possible to find out whether the book was worth reading, without spoiling the read itself (it’s true I’m prone to spoilers). She asked whether I might include some kind of rating system in the first paragraph to alert would-be readers to the urgency, necessity or avoidance of a particular read. Less keen on the scale of 1-10 model, she suggested something like “must,” “maybe” and “don’t.” So I’ll try it out and you can let me know what you think. I think 3 choices is a bit limiting, so I’ll go with five: Urgent Priority to Read (5), You Should (4) If You’re So Inclined (3) You Shouldn’t (2), Priority to Avoid (1).
For John Green’s *Looking for Alaska* I’ll offer a “You Should” rating.
And now for the proper review:
My high school Philosophy teacher, Mr. M, approached the existential philosophers with a certain (albeit appropriate) skepticism. He suggested that the existential questions, while worth considering, were most often ignored by “the masses” or easily solved by “making meaning” (given that life has no inherent meaning to an existentialist) in one of two ways: creation or destruction. He fingered all of us in the room and urged us to consider how we might make our own meaning. I (obviously) still remember this lesson and often reflect on whether my desires to have babies or write a novel are borne more out of panicked impulse to make my life count for something than from any intrinsic desire to have a [baby] [novel] [marathon completion].
John Green’s *Looking for Alaska* has its own Mr. M in the form of the curmudgeonly Religion teacher who pushes his students to think beyond memorizing names or dates and to think instead about the implications of religious questions in their everyday lives. But more than a teacher figure, the text asks and answers the same question: What can we expect out of life? What makes life meaningful? What responsibility/authority do we have to make our lives worth living?
These questions are explored against the usual drama of teenagers at boarding school: pranks, lust, foreign exchange students and too much calculus. Think John Knowle’s A Separate Peace rewritten for 2006 and with a massive online cult following.
It’s a brilliant book not for any particular innovations in plot – that much is pretty staid – but for its novel answer to the question of what makes life meaningful? I won’t do too much spoiling in giving the answer, but the novel took my usual atheist angst about my inevitable death and consumption by worms and brought to it a fresh and even (gasp) hopeful promise about why life (and death) might be meaningful.
And for the intended teenage audience I imagine these questions and the answers presented in *Looking for Alaska* are ever more urgent. That the novel does not gloss or diminish the poignancy and “reality” of these questions for an adolescent audience seems at once both respectful of its readers intellect, but also of its readers complex emotional life. I appreciate that much young adult fiction – including that which I read when I was myself a teen – doesn’t shy away from the difficult, confusing and overwhelming. But this book more than many others I’ve read presents these questions as *actual questions* and sees the problem of answering them as one that all people – not just young people – have to muddle their way about answering. I guess it offers the reader some responsibility, too, to sort out for him/herself what the answer might be.
And so because this is a book that asks difficult questions and presents compelling – and fresh! – answers, and because it gives funny/smart/round characters a chance to grapple with these questions/answers, and because it’s set at a boarding school and who can resist a good boarding school story (hello Harry Potter fans) I’ll give this book its (4) You Should rating. Go read it. You Should for the book’s sake and because it will help you look/be hip and cool with the teenage crowd (so hot right now).
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