I hate it when people ask me what my favorite book is. It’s a more complicated question than they think. I have a favorite book for each mood, season of the year, day of the week. Answering that question requires something akin to medieval astrological calisthenics: How recently have I spoken to my mother or been reminded of high school? Have I had a fight with my husband lately? What’s the weather like? How well do I know the person who’s asking? (Not very, clearly, or they’d know better than to ask).
But there are a few titles that crop up repeatedly as answers to that question. The Grapes of Wrath, The Great Gatsby (even though I sometimes tell people I prefer The Beautiful and the Damned– because most of the time I do), The Lord of the Rings, American Gods, and The Road. For Shakespeare, Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing, with King Lear a close third. (Shakespeare gets his own category. Well, I have a lot of categories, but Shakespeare’s is worth mentioning when talking about favorites.) Now, you cannot hold me to this list, because any answer I give to the question of what is my favorite book is an answer inherently given under duress, but these are some titles that share the top spot on my list (such as it is). These are books I think everyone sixteen and older should read, and I do see it as an act of charity on my part to pressure people to read them. Now, there are other books I love and get excited about, but not every books fits every audience. Except for those listed above. And if they DON’T, then the reader should do herself or himself a favor and change in order to become the appropriate audience for those books. Yes, they’re that good.
And now I’ve added The Fault in Our Stars to that list. Written by the hilarious and humane John Green, TFIOS is a tender and fierce tale of two adolescents with cancer. Like most YA fiction, it tackles the Big Issues: Life, Death, and Love. Unlike a lot of YA fiction, it is literary and complex. It is simply one of the best books I have ever read in my entire life. Its goodreads summary reads as follows: “Despite the tumor-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel’s story is about to be completely rewritten.” A good summary, but, like all summaries, incomplete. The spirit of the novel is so much more than two sentences can contain.
Green takes a group of adolescents, children about to explode into adulthood, buds near-bursting with life, and juxtaposes it with the tragedy of childhood cancer. Hazel is doomed almost from birth. This pairing adds urgency to the typical human questions of identity and meaning that beset us more particularly during adolescence. It also reveals what we do our best to forget: that we are all born with an expiration date. The danger Hazel faces in this novel isn’t cancer, but in leading an unlived life. Augustus says to her at some point, (I’m paraphrasing badly, as I don’t have the book at hand), “Don’t tell me you’re one of those kids who becomes their diagnosis. You’re Hazel, not Cancer Kid.” (Sorrysorrysorry. Green’s phrasing is far superior than mine, but you get the gist.) With Augustus at her side, Hazel commits to making the most of the time she has. She pursues her dreams, her curiousities, her cautious passions– because Hazel is so cautious. What is the point of dreaming, or making plans, or falling in love, when you’re just going to die? And isn’t that the question we all have to wrestle with? Augustus brings her hope and shows her how to live in the midst of dying, even as he struggles with his own anger and disappointments. And Hazel brings Augustus joy. Her matter-of-fact tendency towards nihilism is a refreshing corrective to the chirpy, false-hope “Affirmations” his parents have shrouded his home in. Hazel and Augustus are a love match for the ages. They’re everything Romeo and Juliet ought to have been or is rumored to be. R & J were willing to die for their love– Hazel and Augustus would never hold either life or love so cheaply.
Maybe you’re one of those people who feels superior to YA fiction. Adults should read books written for adults. To you I say, quit being a pretentious jerk. TFIOS is on par with Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, The Catcher in the Rye, Let the Great World Spin, or any other critical darling that’s graced the (adult) literary fiction lists in the past 100 years. Maybe you’re one of those readers who feels like all of John Green’s novels are the same, so why bother reading another. To you I say, Faulkner, Hemingway, and Dickens have a similar issue. It’s called having a style. (Also, TFIOS is the best of his works yet. And isn’t it a little odd to be so jaded about something so specific? He’s only written four novels– six if you count the ones he wrote with David Levithan. You need to ease up.)
Do yourself a favor and read this book. No, no. Don’t tell me you’ve got a whole stack on your bedside table to get through, a whole list to finish before Labor Day, or to-read column so long you can never die. Bump this one to the top, and keep a box of Kleenex handy. Trust me.
PS You know what else might make your day better? Whatever they’ve got posted on vlogbrothers lately. DFTBA!