You may know John Green the author — yes, the one who wrote “The Fault in Our Stars.” You may know Green the Crash Course History instructor. You may even know Green the YouTuber. Now, meet Green the human.
“Hello, and welcome to ‘The Anthropocene Reviewed,’ a podcast where we review different facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale.” Whenever I hear this introduction, spoken in Green’s husky voice over curious and quiet music, I know that it’s time to turn on my brain because I will be thinking about the world in a new light.
The conceit of “The Anthropocene Reviewed” is deceptively simple. Green picks an item, person, practice, concept — anything, really — from the vast expanse of the Anthropocene, the human epoch, and tells us what he thinks about it while we listen, laugh and cry.
But why should we listen to this random middle-aged white man tell us what he thinks? Don’t we listen to enough of that already?
Well, for one, Green does significantly more research than some middle-aged white men that I could mention. In his review of Kentucky bluegrass, he tells us that “more land, and more water, are devoted to the cultivation of lawn grass in the United States than to corn and wheat combined,” so that the listener can be duly alarmed.
In his episode about “Auld Lang Syne,” he gives the listener an entire history of the obscure origins of the song. I bet you didn’t know that we can credit the current version of “Auld Lange Syne” to Robert Burns, a Scottish poet who scrawled the verses on the back of a letter in 1788 — it is unknown how much of our version was written by him, but Green tells us that the original dates back at least 400 years.
But he never just leaves it at mere facts. He is, after all, a storyteller, but the stories he tells on “The Anthropocene Reviewed” are no fiction. They are his own stories, from his days of student chaplaincy, from his home city of Indianapolis, from his heart and from his soul.
In the same episode that he brings to light the environmental problems surrounding the Western obsession with lawns, he tells the harrowing story of seeing a 3-year-old burn victim during his time as a student chaplain in a children’s hospital. I won’t tell you how the story ends. Green surely tells it better.
As a writer, I of course believe that there’s a lot to be said for the written word. It’s a way of placing the thoughts from your head directly into the head of your readers, whoever they may be, with whatever perspectives they may have. They will read it in their own voice and see it through their own eyes. But “The Anthropocene Reviewed” makes me feel that in my love for writing, I may have been overlooking the power of the spoken word.
Humans have only been able to write since c. 3200 BCE, and even then, the ancient Mesopotamians at first mostly used their cuneiform for keeping accounts. Before the invention of writing — and long after in some societies — oral storytelling was the main way of transferring collective knowledge from one generation to the next. Humans are wired to speak and to listen.
So, when I put my headphones in as I wash the dishes, as I go for a run or as I walk to class, and Green whispers to me the secrets of his life, it feels sacred and intimate. It takes courage to write your story, yes, but it takes even more courage to speak it out into the universe, knowing that thousands of people can now hear this part of you.
“The Anthropocene Reviewed” represents the best of nonfiction writing, but it’s a strange new form to me. I have never read, or heard, anything exactly like it. In an interview with Vulture, Green described the podcast as “a series of essays disguised as reviews.” I’m not sure that this description quite captures the scope of the show.
The term “essay,” as Green uses it here, was first coined by the great nonfiction writer Michel de Montaigne and is derived from the French word “essais” — “to attempt.” Merriam-Webster defines an essay as “an analytic or interpretive literary composition usually dealing with its subject from a limited or personal point of view.”
Samuel Johnson called the essay a “loose sally of the mind.” John D’Agata, who suggested coining the term “lyric essay,” called the essay “an art form that tracks the idea of consciousness as it rolls over the folds of a new idea, memory or emotion.”
I think that “essay” is far too broad a term to use to describe “The Anthropocene Reviewed.” “Personal essay” doesn’t fit either — Green often tells stories that are not his own — and don’t even get me started on the term “lyric essay.” Perhaps we are best off sticking with the basics. As my professors have often told me, Montaigne knows best.
“The Anthropocene Reviewed” is an attempt to see the world generously, to view humans complexly, to set objects, people and places into context. It’s an attempt to make the listener think — really, truly. It’s an attempt to leave us with an impression of the issues that we all must face, but also with a sense of warmth and optimism. We will face them together, and we will overcome.
I give “The Anthropocene Reviewed” five stars.