As we sat outside, scarfing down the last of our dinner, we watched the people walking in and tried to guess which groups were there for John, and who had just chosen an unfortunate time to borrow a book. Sometimes it was difficult to tell, but in most cases, it was obvious — if not by the quirky clothing or the books clutched tightly in their hands, then by their nervous, excited energy.
The kids there seemed excited not only to be in the same room with one of their favorite authors, but also to be among so many people that loved the things they loved and shared the same interests. It's amazing to think this is only a fraction of the community that has sprung up around John Green's books and video blogs.
John spoke first about why we still read books when there are so many other forms of entertainment available to us, and how today's teens are reading more widely and passionately than ever before.
"I want to argue tonight that despite all of the terrible things that you’ve heard about the vapid apathy of this generation of teenagers and how they do nothing all day but look at tumblr, […] that, in fact, today’s generation of teenagers is, in many ways, the best informed, the best read, most thoughtful group of teenagers the world’s ever known."
He spoke about how today's teens are reading thousands of words everyday on Tumblr, Twitter, and in YouTube comments — more words a day, he said, than he ever read as a teen. But then he went on to say this text-based interaction is insufficient. That, while literacy is great, it's not enough.
Holding up one of his books: "These words are just meaningless scratches on a page, until someone makes them real."
He pointed out that when we read books, we have to make the worlds within them real in a way that we don't have to with other forms of entertainment/reading. When we read books, we are put into times and situations and cultures that are foreign to us.
"That’s one of the things that reading can give us, and I think it’s one of the things that we most crave. We crave feeling outside of ourselves. […] When I read a great novel, I feel like I am seeing the world out of someone else’s eyes. I feel like I have a life outside of my own — if only for a little bit — and I can imagine what it’s like to be someone else with a complexity that I could never imagine what it’s like to be even the people whom I love the most, who are closest to me."
Then John took questions, the first of which asked why he has chosen to write YA.
“I really like teenagers, but not in a creepy way. [The crowd laughs.] I find them really interesting because they’re doing a lot of important things for the first time: they’re falling in love for the first time, they’re experiencing grief for the first time — in many cases, at least — and they’re almost always for the first time grappling in a sovereign way with the big questions of our species.”
“In my experience at least, when you treat teenagers as if they aren’t stupid, they won’t disappoint you. I think when you credit anyone with intelligence, they tend to rise to the occasion.”
Both John’s faith in the intelligence of his readers and the teenage struggle with the “big questions” became evident later when a young girl from the audience asked, “I was just wondering why you think people suffer?”
Instead of skirting the question or giving a nice neat answer as I saw many adults do when I was a teen. He answered with seriousness and honesty, explaining how he cannot imagine we live in the best possible world and that he tries not to look for a reason because it just makes him angry. Then he countered that while there is tremendous suffering in the world, there is also tremendous joy.
“For me the saving grace of the question of why people suffer, the place where I find hope in that, is that even though we all suffer, even though we will all have terrible pain that we have to live with in our lives, there is also going to be moments of great fulfillment.”
“So my answer to why people suffer is I don’t know, but I am very very grateful that even though we suffer — and I don’t want to diminish it — even though there is terrible pain in the world, for now, for today, we are very lucky to be observers of the universe.”
In conclusion, I think one of the big reasons this community of teens has sprung up around John's work is because he doesn't water down his answers for them. Anyone could have heard him speak that night and wouldn't have been able to tell whether it was meant for teens or adults (baring some of the goofier questions about mermaids and cannibalism). And he doesn't hold back in his writing because his readers are younger than he is. He makes an effort to understand them and admits when he doesn't.
John made a brief mention of his day trip to "Single N-Double N-Single T Cincinnati" (as he put it) in his video this week:
Update: For anyone interested, you can watch the entire speech on the library's YouTube channel.