Tuesday, February 28, 2012
the drowning world
There are two things I want to talk about regarding this book: why I was excited for this book, and the experience of reading a book that I've been waiting for.
But to preface this experience, let me talk about the author, John Green, and how I discovered the awesome world of Nerdfighteria.
Somewhere between receiving my master's degree and finding a job post-graduation, my best friend Zebra told me that she discovered this awesome new author: John Green! I said, "Great, where can I find his books?"
And she goes, "Well, they're quite difficult to find, but..." and then she names the smaller bookstores in the greater Manila area. And so during that summer (I vaguely remember it was a summer), I dutifully went stomping around bookstores to look for John Green books. And she was right - they were quite difficult to find. In fact, so difficult that the only book I found was An Abundance of Katherines, which left me with a nice, fuzzy feeling in my tummy.
Fast forward to 2011. A bunch of my friends, Rabbit included (notice how a lot of my friends have animal names?), persuaded me to watch Doctor Who. The first episode I actually watched was the first one of the sixth season, "The Impossible Astronaut". I was hooked. I went back, borrowed my friend Monkeygod's videos of the first and second seasons of Doctor Who, and stumbled through them in two weeks. In fact, during my first regeneration sequence from the Ninth to the Tenth Doctor, I was crying so hard that the screen started blurring, I started hyperventilating, and I thought my heart was being split into two.
During this first rush of fandom adrenaline, I looked up everything Doctor Who-related online - fanfiction, fanmade items, music, Confidentials, the BBC Proms, basically EVERYTHING. I transformed into a Whovian overnight. It was exhilarating and frightening at the same time - possibly the same feeling one gets when stepping off the TARDIS for the first time and entering a new world. And during this time, I discovered trock music and, more importantly, Chameleon Circuit.
Chameleon Circuit is a band that makes music based on Doctor Who and, much like wizard rock, they are made with love and care and dedication by hardcore fans. The members of the band all have individual YouTube channels that they update on a regular basis and through one of them, Charlie McDonnell, I encountered a short video that featured John Green in it.
And I thought to myself, "Hmm, John Green? Well, that's a pretty common name. I wonder if this is the same author Zebra was talking about..."
And so I click on a link and ended up being introduced to the Vlogbrothers.
See, here's the thing about the Internet: connections, no matter how improbable, are being made all the time. And so here I was, following a single shining thread from one place to another, wondering where it was going to lead, and then BAM! I find myself right smack dab in the middle of Nerdfighteria.
In the intervening months between then and the moment I tore open a small Amazon box containing my copies, my own physical copies of Looking For Alaska, Paper Towns, and The Fault in Our Stars, I inhaled the Internet. It felt like things were rushing into place, helter-skelter pieces dropping from thin air and on to my lap, and I felt like I had stumbled into this secret gold mine of awesomeness. Here were people who talked about things I loved and believed in, who said, "Okay guys, we're going to make being intelligent awesome and we're going to try to make the world suck less" and it made me feel less lonely. And trust me, even when you're in your mid-twenties and the rest of the world considers you an adult and you're living with a boyfriend in an entirely different country from where you grew up in, sometimes you will feel like the loneliest person in the world. (Especially when aforementioned boyfriend, now currently sporting an "ex-" before his title, was a douchebag of the highest order and was prone to making fun of your nerdiness.)
And I appreciated that. I appreciated that this small Internet world was basically making me laugh and cry and FEEL ALL THE THINGS! and through YouTube and Tumblr and fandom and this limitless exchange of information and ideas through a digital medium, I felt a little less lonely. And when the boyfriend and I broke up, in quite possibly one of the shittiest ways possible, I was avidly watching John and Hank and Charlie and Alex and Elmify and Kayley and Kristina and going through back episodes on YouTube of Hankgames and the Five Awesome Girls and Five Awesome Guys project, watching footage of Vidcon 2011 and keeping up with the livestream of Project for Awesome 2011 all throughout the weekend despite having work and packing up my things and shipping things back to Manila. And this made me feel less lonely, and less sad, and it reminded me that no matter what happened, there was always something to hope for.
(As an aside: when I got back to Manila, most of the comments centered around a repetition of "You broke up with your boyfriend? Good for you! You seem great now. You seem just fine." It was - and still is - very difficult to explain why I was okay. To say that Doctor Who and the Vlogbrothers and Nerdfighteria made me feel better seemed slightly mad. And I already had a reputation for being mad.)
And so here we are with The Fault in Our Stars. Even before I received the book, which I pre-ordered back in November 2011, I was already scouring bookstores for its distinctive bright blue cover. I knew I was getting a copy, but I wanted to buy copies for other people too. But as it was before, and as it is now - the Philippines does not get enough in terms of book distribution. And so I never saw a copy of the book on the shelves. And this, to a certain extent, makes me feel glad that I did pre-order the book. (Although, some people have seen signed and Hanklerfish'ed copies in other bookstore chains in Manila; alas, they seem to have disappeared as well.)
I finally picked up the box from the post office (that belongs to a whole other story, mind you) and quickly hailed the next cab passing by. I wasn't sure where I wanted to go yet; all I know is that I needed to find a comfortable place to hide in for the next few hours. As I was tearing open the box and flipping through to see my J-scribble (red, and sadly no Hanklerfish or Yeti), I knew I wanted to read this somewhere with light and brightness and a certain bit of privacy. Coffee and tea may or may not be involved, but since I hadn't had breakfast at this point, I figured it would be a good idea to go and get some food too.
I haven't been excited about new books in awhile. Sure, I loved to try new books, and I always look out for recommendations from authors and book reviewers and friends, but this book was special. There was a moment when I was staring at my copy, when I finally found the perfect place and got the perfect cup of tea and the perfect breakfast bun to go along with this experience, and I felt like I wanted to burst into tears. I felt overwhelmed. What is this book didn't meet my expectations? What if it falls flat on my face? What if I hated it?
Before I could begin, I already texted Zebra. "Can we meet for lunch?" She replies with an affirmative. Good, I think to myself. At least I will have someone who might understand, just in case.
By 11 AM, I was about a third of a way into the book, and I felt slightly ashamed that I was inhaling the words at such a rapid pace. There was something so engaging and amazing about Hazel and Gus and their world and their voices, and I wanted to dive into the wreckage of a doomed love affair with all the enthusiasm of a deep-sea diver. It talked about life and living and the fears we all have or have had and, and, and...
Here's the thing I want to say about my experience reading TFiOS: I found myself at a McDonalds, waiting for Zebra, and turning the page from 198 to 199. And when I reached page 200, I started tearing up. And I forced myself to keep it in, because nobody wants to see a crazy girl crying over a book in a crowded McDonalds. And by two-thirds of the way through, my eyes could no longer hold all the tears and I found myself, with tears streaming from my eyes, reading through the rest of the book and holding up the pages in front of my face so that I wouldn't accidentally drip into the french fries.
When Zebra walked through the doors just past 1 PM, I was done reading. My heart felt incredibly light.
I wrote something about it, in longhand, on my iPad, while waiting for my best friend. I said, "You know how sometimes, you read a book because it is required, or because it seems cool to read, or because it is popular? TFiOS is not that, precisely. It is a story about living and dying, about wanting more than the life we have and knowing when it is enough. It is about love, about sadness and sickness and life and death, and the infinity of moments." And I realize, now, that this is a book that I wish I could have read when I was younger, and I envy teenagers the power of their moments, of their infinite potential, about their passion over words.
And when I set out to write this, I wanted to quote some of my favorite bits of the book, but now I realize that to do that is to take away the power this story had over me. I didn't know much about it before it came out - there were no advance copies sent to reviewers, and John was very clear about his stance on spoilers, even though some people who pre-ordered the book received it well before the release date. So I knew the names of the characters, and I knew that it was a book about cancer, but that was it.
And I was glad that I came to this book a blank slate.
Because by the end of it, it also made me feel less lonely.
And I think, to a large extent, this is why we read and write and make films and speak in front of a camera, hoping against hope that the world outside can hear us. Because we need to tell stories. We need to find something to hold on to in this world where we are always in danger of drowning. And stories act as anchors for us, reminding us, whispering in our ears, "Hey. Hang on. I'm here."