“Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together until all living humans read the book. And then there are books… which you can’t tell people about, books so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal.”—Hazel, from The Fault in Our Stars
Indianapolis-based writer John Green gathered the world’s most painful and confusing paradoxes, marinated them in sarcasm until they became bearable and assigned them the title The Fault in Our Stars.
Somewhere a publishing executive laughably categorized it as a “Children’s Chapter Book.”
Any blow-by-blow plot summary of TFIOS would sound so depressing as to be hardly readable. Still, Green navigates some very deep waters with great finesse. His star-crossed lovers, Hazel and Augustus, meet at a support group for terminally ill teenagers. Both have already stared death in the face and come to accept its reality, but in one another they each find reason to live out their remaining days with passion and purpose.
Here is a story about chance and choice too tragic to be comedic, and too funny to be sad. It is exquisitely crafted and universally accessible. At the center of this swirling vortex of big ideas lies the notion that made-up stories can mean a great deal to people … and that we face losing such stories just as we face losing life.
While in college, Green volunteered at a children’s hospital. The experience moved him deeply. He has said that TFIOS existed in some form since that experience, that the story simply waited for him to be ready to write it.
In the meantime, he built a tribe of followers called Nerdfighters through the YouTube channel where he collaborates with his brother, Hank. In addition to the usual web video shenanigans, the pair make bi-weekly videos about a wide range of topics that teenagers aren’t supposed to care about: macroeconomics, copyright law, education reform. The online community has a lot of fun and does a lot of good. Nerdfighters recently raised almost half a million dollars for charity during a two-day event called The Project for Awesome.
Green also wrote other books, including the Printz Award winner, Looking for Alaska, and a best-seller, Paper Towns, which appear to have prepared him for his best work to date. TFIOS is the first of Green’s books to achieve both commercial success and critical acclaim.
Stories come a dime a dozen in the Western world. Pick up any remote, look at any screen, you become audience to a story. Familiarity breeds a kind of contempt—good luck finding an audience for most yarns if the telling outlasts a single beer.
We assign a little more permission to the experts, tolerating chunks of 30 minutes or an hour. On very special occasions, we even take in the 90- or 120-minute epic. Still, we generally have no participation in these longer stories. As the modern world advances, we become more and more passive as consumers. The campfire dialogue has become a silent picture, remastered for technicolor and again for high definition. We personally tell fewer stories than ever, yet they remain ubiquitous and infinitely important.
We all expect stories to entertain, but the best also educate. Through emotional response, stories teach us about ourselves. We learn from our earliest stories what things make us angry and sad. Many of us learn of the longing for true love through watching some prince or princess fight to achieve it. It’s a primal mystery: we somehow learn most about ourselves by hearing stories about imagined others.
Hazel, the TFIOS narrator, only understands her miraculous (if momentary) reprieve from terminal cancer through her favorite book, a fiction called An Imperial Affliction. In it, the main character’s life bears a striking resemblance to Hazel’s. The book becomes central to the plot when Augustus incites a round-the-world quest to seek out its author, whom Hazel describes as ”… the only person I’d ever come across who seemed to (a) understand what it’s like to be dying, and (b) not have died.”
Stories teach us about the actual world too, not just the fictional world. Librarians often cite this benefit of reading, and for good reason. Experience limits our understanding, especially in youth. So stories allow us to see corners of the wide world that we would not otherwise know. As Emily Dickenson told us, “There is no Frigate like a book to take us lands away.”
In TFIOS, cancer has robbed Augustus Waters of any chance to rush into a dragon’s lair and save his friends, but it cannot take away his desire to be heroic. Augustus wants nothing more than to fly off to another world where he is not a victim. He escapes in movies, simulates his fantasy in video games.
Stories and storytelling become immensely important, as Hazel and Augustus evolve from escapists into storytellers. Green means for us to see how the reading of a book, the engagement in a story, is a creative act, in contrast to screen-bound stories which we passively consume. The telling of a story requires collaboration between writer and reader. The writer assembles a sequence of words, crafting and honing. The story’s framework takes shape in his mind alone. The reader then unwinds this written story and assigns meaning to the words. A published book remains an untold story; only in the reading does a story find voice.
Herein lies the genius of TFIOS. Green builds his plot around a book (that doesn’t exist) to which his narrator assigns tremendous meaning. The great struggle, the driving conflict, is not Hazel and Augustus against cancer. It’s these two kids fighting to understand their power as readers and story-makers … and most of all their power to choose their own stories. As Augustus puts it, “You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world… but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices.”
Ray Deck III is an actor and writer residing digitally at RayDeck3.com When he is not assembling sequences of words, you can find him gallivanting around the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York.