If you have kids over the age of 10, they likely know author John Green, but his latest work is for adults.
Several of his books have been turned into movies and TV shows, including The Fault in Our Stars and Looking for Alaska.
Green is also known for hosting the entertaining and popular YouTube channel Crash Course, which he created with his brother, Hank. It has more than 13 million subscribers and is used in elementary and middle school classrooms across the country, covering topics as wide-ranging as military general Alexander the Great, organic chemistry and the history of school segregation in the U.S.
Green is known for writing for a young adult audience, but his most recent book, The Anthropocene Reviewed: Essays on a Human-Centered Planet is geared more toward adults.
Its name comes from the epoch that some experts say includes significant human impact on the environment.
The author draws on some of his most personal experiences for some of the book’s essays, such as living through the COVID-19 pandemic and his experience with bullying in school.
In other essays, Green reviews various topics on a five-star scale. For example, he discusses his thoughts on the board game Monopoly (two stars) and the famous Icelandic hot dog stand (five stars). The idea is to connect seemingly random subjects with Green’s thoughts on humans’ impact on themselves and on the planet. Think big tech or living in a certain place – like Chicago, where Green spent several years – or through a major historic event like the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I was trying to write about my way of looking at the world,” Green said in a recent conversation with WBEZ’s Reset. “Amid COVID and everything, I wanted to understand my way of looking at the world. I wanted to pay a more careful and sustained kind of attention.”
Why all the hate for Monopoly?
Green points out the game not only takes on capitalism but was “essentially stolen” by its purported inventor, Charles Darrow.
“I wanted to tell that story in the book as an example of how we have an economic system that does a fairly good job of capturing the value that’s created, but it is also often captured not by the people who create it,” Green said.
In this case, the original idea behind Monopoly came from a progressive woman in 1903 named Elizabeth Magie, who wanted a board game that reflected her political values.
According to an article in The Guardian, Magie was deeply concerned about the problems of the new century, including income inequality and the rise of huge monopolies.
Her game – much like the version we know today – featured deeds and properties that could be bought and sold using play money, a jail, a public park and a poor house. But there were also squares players could land on to receive necessities like bread, water, shelter and light. Players performed labor to earn their wages. Those who ran out of money were sent to the Poor House, with only those trespassing on land being sent to jail.
Sounds different from the rules of the game that were eventually adopted, right?
Big Tech, Piggly Wiggly and local bookstores in Chicago
The grocery chain Piggly Wiggly may not have any stores in the Chicago area, but its rise and fall parallel some Big Tech - which also happens to coincide with what happened to the local bookstores Green loved so much during his time in the city.
“I wanted to find a way to write about how we are now living again in a moment where these kinds of individual founder figures are really held up as paragons of a value system,” Green told Reset. “But that’s not new in American history. We’ve often had these corporations and their leaders take on a kind of outsized role in political and social and economic discourse.”
Piggly Wiggly, Green explained, was the beginning of today’s idea of a supermarket, where customers pick their own food instead of the grocer picking it out for them.
“Customers would be aware of brands like Oreo cookies or Campbell’s soup,” he added. “That marked a big change in American life.”
It also happens that Green’s father owned a small grocery store in Tennessee – but, like many such stores, it was put out of business by the rise of Piggly Wiggly.
Such was the fate of many small local bookstores, too, with stores like Amazon and Barnes & Noble taking much of their business away. Just five years after Amazon began selling books in 1995, the number of independent bookstores dropped by 43%, an article in Forbes explains.
However, bookstores managed to make a comeback thanks to their ability to build communities with their customers and ability to curate strong selections, according to the Forbes article.
“I think there is still a vibrant world of independent, community-oriented bookstores in the U.S. and I think that’s something that we need to support because I think that we read better when books are recommended to us by people than when they’re recommended to us by algorithms,” Green said.
Chicago’s bookstore scene played a big role in Green’s life; he says he wrote “large swaths” of his second novel at a store in Lincoln Square.
“And if it weren’t for bookstores, I wouldn’t have read a lot of the books that I’ve read because a lot of my favorite books were recommended to me by booksellers,” Green said.
CNN and the importance of context in journalism
Living in Chicago, Green says he had three roommates that he was close with, living in a house with very few doors and spending a lot of time together.
Watching CNN on their one TV set ended up being a common pastime for them, especially during the U.S.’s invasion of Iraq in 2003; one of the roommates had family living in Iraq at the time. Watching CNN helped the roommate cope with the stress of the situation.
“One day just after the fall of Baghdad, we were watching as a camera panned across a large home that had a big hole in it that was covered over with plywood, and on the plywood was some Arabic graffiti scrawled in black spray paint,” Green said. “The guy on CNN was talking about the anger in the street and everything and Hassan [the roommate] started to laugh.”
It turned out the graffiti said, “Happy Birthday, sir, despite the circumstances.”
That memory from Green’s time living in Chicago shaped his worldview and his thoughts on one of the roles of journalists: to bring necessary context to stories.