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Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Turtles All The Way Down, Four Months Out

DFTBA.

If you are not subscribed to the vlogbrothers YouTube channel, and if you never have been, you might not know what that stands for. It's an initialism (because acronyms are pronounceable, fact c/o of a vlogbrothers video) that stands for Don't Forget To Be Awesome. It is the official (or perhaps unofficial) motto of the nerdfighter community. (Nerdfighters are people who are fans of vlogbrothers, the content creators therein, or the community therein. I think that's enough definitions for now).

When I was 14 years old, this book called The Fault in Our Stars came out. A good friend of mine was kind of obsessed with the author, this slightly sub-middle-aged white guy named John Green, and she insisted that I read both The Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska, this John Green guy's first book. I was a reader in childhood, having developed nearsightedness due to my predilection for reading in the dark after my bedtime by flashlight (at least that's the explanation my mother gave me). However, recently I'd found myself frustrated by books. I would tear through middle-grade chick lit (that's the best way I can describe these terribly formulaic books with dull characters and contrived plots that always involved two straight/white/able-bodied/middle-class best friends falling in love) when I found it, but other than that, I wasn't reading as much as I used to. I can't really remember what I did with my free time. I guess I was writing songs? I think I was mostly playing The Sims 3.

I digress.

In any case, I was in ninth grade and on the precipice of Maybe Being Cool, and this friend was one of the cooler girls in class, so I bought TFiOS (hip shorthand) about two months after its publication and read it over spring break in ninth grade.

I read it in one three or four hour sitting, and I cried. Like a lot.

It was the first time since early childhood that I could remember a book moving me in such a poignant way. I was attached to the characters, I was absorbed by the plot, and the language! The LANGUAGE in that story was so compelling. I was picking up on subtext and metaphors in a way that I'd only ever done when I was forced to in English class. The book had reinvigorated my love for words in stories that no other book could have.

Then I took a brief reading hiatus.

The second half of my ninth grade year was me continuing to ascend the social ladder, however slowly. I still joked that I was a dork, but the truth of the matter was, I had friends from every rung. I was sociable with tech geeks, theater nerds, football players, and cheerleaders alike. I felt like people had stopped looking through me like I was invisible. It was largely due to my presence on the school newspaper, which drew both the ambitious popular kids and the ambitious nerdy kids to its ranks. Also, I had a boyfriend. We never kissed or held hands or even went on dates, but we hung out every day at school and told people we were dating. This was enough to get me at least a bit of social buying power.

(I promise this is all relevant to the story).

Then, at the end of freshman year, I realized that I was sick of having a boyfriend who did not kiss me or hold my hand or go on dates with me, and also didn't answer my texts or calls once school let out. So I called his house and dumped him over the phone. I spent the summer feeling sorry for myself, turning to the Internet and its thriving subculture of fame and infamy. Whenever I get heartbroken in real life, I fall deeply and inconsolably in love with fictional characters and/or celebrities who are too old for me. That summer, it was Jack and Finn Harries, Dan Howell, and any other British 20-year-old who made funny sketches and made me feel like I was loved, even though they were thousands of miles away, several years older, and had no idea who I was.

It was during this summer that I discovered a channel featuring two much older men named Hank Green and John Green (yes relation, they're brothers). Their videos were all at least somewhat informational, whether they be about politics, science, literature, or just about the personal lives of the men who made the videos. About five videos in, I realized that John Green of the vlogbrothers was John Green of TFiOS fame. I was elated! There were hundreds of videos on the channel going back to 2007. In between reading self-insert fanfic about the Harries twins, I would watch vlogbrothers videos, reminding myself to read John's other books when I got the chance.

When I returned to school, all the work that I'd done to become popular seemed to dissolve before my very eyes. Sophomore year was when we switched campuses, to the Upper School, and all the actual popular kids were going to parties with upperclassmen and trying alcohol and getting into real relationships. I was stuck in the past, pining over boys who only hung out with me so I would help them write their essays and obsessing over Tumblr and YouTube. I was also experiencing turbulence in my personal life unlike any I'd ever had before. It's so clear to me now that I was afraid of the social rejection and emotional darkness in the real world, so I holed myself up online, laughing while handsome young Brits wore wigs on camera and rewatching John Green speed-talk his way through a fake television show he titled "Hitler and Sex."

In the midst of this Internet-ing, I read that other John Green book my old friend had mentioned, even though she'd already begun the slow and painful process of outgrowing me (the death knell of our friendship was when she told me about having sex with her boyfriend in her car and my response was some combination of a prudish, judgmental face and an exclamation of "Ew!"). Looking for Alaska leveled me just as profoundly as TFiOS had, and with no social life to worry about, I was hungry for more. I read the other books that John Green had talked about on his channel--Fahrenheit 451 and The Great Gatsby, plus other works that his recommendations had led me to, like Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, The Taming of the Shrew, and one of my all-time favorites to this day, Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut. I was reading a book almost every week, downloading them to my iPad and going back to my old habits, reading by dim light long after I should have already gone to sleep. My schoolwork wasn't where it needed to be, but I was thriving. Awakened, even.

Though my junior year marked another ascent into minor popularity, I crash-landed my senior year, coming off a painful rejection from a summer romance and a position in student government that should have won me acceptance but largely isolated me from everyone but my fellow council mates and steady friends. College applications were stressing me out, I felt alienated from even my immediate circle, and I was worried about my social future. Though I was accepted to the only two universities I applied to, I felt inert and emotionally itchy. I descended back into what I knew best: books. I read more Vonnegut, bizarre stories by delightful authors like Graeme Cameron and Douglas Coupland, and of course, my current #1 all-time, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz. After my brain literally exploded from reading Oscar Wao in all its sprawling, multilingual, multigenerational, magical realistic/science fictional glory, I devoured Díaz's two books of short stories, Drown and This Is How You Lose Her. I vividly remember those days in the spring of 2015, using my seemingly endless multitude of free periods to sit in the sweaty, iron-hot bleachers, nose burrowed in a book, ignoring the festivities of senior year around me. I was happier alone, laughing at Kurt's crude drawings and Díaz's matter-of-factness about love and sex, experiences I'd still yet to have at 17.

I graduated, and I went to USC, where within a month of starting school I met Junot Díaz and got him to sign my copy of Oscar Wao. I dealt with the Usual College Stuff, like homesickness (from half an hour away...I'm weak) and social anxiety and academic adjustments and figuring out what the hell it actually means to major in popular music. I stopped judging people for drinking alcohol and having sex, I stopped being afraid of parties (though I'm still terrified of boys...and rightly so), I stopped being disappointed in my real life because it doesn't follow a neat narrative (or at least I do it less now). However, I never stopped reading, and I never stopped watching vlogbrothers videos. I am a faithful nerdfighter, because that online community and John's books have seen me through some dark times.

Somewhere in the last five years, I read An Abundance of Katherines (not my favorite), Paper Towns (used to be my favorite but TFiOS ranks supreme at the moment), and Will Grayson Will Grayson (absolutely ACES but technically cowritten with David Levithan so to me it is in a separate category). I've watched thousands of videos from vlogbrothers and Crash Course. I went to Vidcon in 2014 and met John in person for about five seconds, handing him my business card and a #JustinCarrWantsWorldPeace luggage tag before he was escorted to his next event by security. My love of language has blossomed into three young adult manuscripts, two feature films, a handful of short films, and hundreds of poems, songs, and essays. Though my inner and outer lives have changed substantially since I first wept onto the pages of TFiOS, I'm still anxious, and often. I'm still terrified of romantic rejection and I still put myself out there frequently and embarrassingly. I'm still a bookworm and I'm still a writer and I'm still a nerdfighter. And I think I always will be.

John Green and his books have a special place in my heart. So when he announced that his first new book in almost six years is coming out this fall, I was overcome with emotion. Turtles All The Way Down isn't just a book. It's a historical artifact from the future, a piece of my past hurtling towards me from the opposite direction. When I think of John Green's work, I think of my cringey adolescence, my weirdly small glasses and then my weirdly big glasses, my difficulty with my weight and my stunted social development. I think of the hours I spent reblogging fan art and GIF sets of real people that I'd mythologized into characters by watching their YouTube videos for so long. I think of my transition from Cute Little Girl to Awkward Bookish Teen to Real Human Woman. I was 14 when I read my first John Green book. I will be 20 when I read Turtles All The Way Down. The chasm between who I was and who I will be then is huge. Un-crossable by anyone but me.

Right now, we're a little less than four months out from the release of Turtles All The Way Down. Not much is known about the book, and I'd like to keep it that way. I'm feeling those tingly "no spoilers!" feelings I felt when I was in high school and enamored with the purity of an untouched literary experience. But as much as this book's impending release is inspiring a unique kind of nostalgia in me, it's also reminding me that I cannot go back. I cannot return to the innocent girl of 14 I was when I first heard John Green's name, and I can't get back the years I spent/lost/lived in between then and now. I can only move forward. I can only grow up.

This book, in all likelihood, will not live up to my expectations. It will not change my life. It can't, because though it will be my first time reading this particular book, it won't be my first time becoming infatuated with literature. I've done that already. I may love this book, but there is a difference between falling in love with someone new and falling in love for the very first time. Before I met books with sweaty palms, dress askew, tongue heavy in my mouth. So...come here often? Now, each story is met with a knowing smile, legs crossed at the ankles like they're supposed to be, no lipstick on the wine glass. Your place or mine?

Before this book comes out, and I form any opinions about the content or the style, I would like to extend a heartfelt thank you to John Green. If not for his careful handiwork, if not for the immense trust that he puts in his young readers, if not for his heart-wrenching stories, I might never have been drawn to great books the way I am now. Thank you for caring. Thank you for writing even when your illness handcuffed you, tried to make you stop. Thank you for making videos about hard topics and silly ones. I may grow up, but I will never outgrow you and your words, John. Keep publishing books, and I'll keep reading them, no matter how old we both get.

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