Out of the Abyss: John Green Inspires at “An Evening of Awesome”

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February 8, 2013 by Jason Seligson

John Green and Neil Gaiman at “An Evening of Awesome” at Carnegie Hall on January 15.

By Jason Seligson

“Books jump into the abyss with you where you are.” This is the power of story.

On January 15, New York Times best-selling author John Green appeared at Carnegie Hall in a sold-out event to promote the one-year anniversary of his novel, The Fault in Our Stars.

“An Evening of Awesome” was John’s biggest appearance to date. The evening was filled with readings from both The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns; musical performances by folk rock band The Mountain Goats, and from John’s brother, Hank–those who have heard Hank’s Vlogbrother videos will recognize his eclectic subject range of songs: “Accio Deathly Hallows” is about the days leading up to the release of the final Harry Potter book, while “A Song About an Anglerfish” is just that.

Some surprise guests also graced the stage–most notably, beloved fantasy author Neil Gaiman. The sort of variety show that ensued was wacky and uplifting, but it was also unexpectedly affecting.

To put things into perspective, according to John, the last time an author sold out the venue was during Norman Mailer’s funeral. The notion of an author’s appearance causing mass hysteria was pretty much unheard of 20 years ago, but those were the dark, Neanderthal-esque days of a pre-J.K. Rowling age that we’d rather not remember.

In fact, Rowling appeared at Carnegie Hall in late 2007, a few months after the worldwide release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. It’s no mistake that she heralded a new era of literature and showed a new generation the connective power stories have. Green has taken that and has inspired so many people in the very same way.

What’s so incredible to me is that this kind of authorial passion that arguably exploded with Potter is at the end of the day, fueled by a love of reading. It never comes as a surprise that people travel thousands of miles for a band or a big film name, but for an author? To some, the very idea seems must seem more ludicrous than Wrackspurts. But those people underestimate these kinds of fans.

In a fascinating one-hour conversation with Rowling, Daniel Radcliffe echoed this sentiment. “If you think about all the big costume-wearing things, like “Star Wars” and “Star Trek”…what’s interesting is that Potter, because it started off as a literary thing, has created a generation of the same kind of geeky thoroughness but with an appetite for reading and literature, which is kind of amazing.” Here, Radcliffe sharply assess the influence Potter has had not just literature, but in pop culture as a whole.

And while reading, as John said later on that night, seems like the ultimate solitary activity, this too is changing. Books, like film and television, are now communal experiences; they allow us to form bonds, to think about the world around us–and to just maybe find our way out of the abyss.

John understands this feeling of loneliness better than most.  He spoke of the intangible yet indomitable strength of reading, and the joy there is in collaborating with one another. I think this is what I like most about John and his books; he imparts wisdom when you least expect it, and his emotional moments land because they aren’t cloying–they feel earned.

Quite frankly, John’s opening speech says it all. In it, he described the inspiration behind The Fault in Our Stars, recalling his six-month job as a chaplain at a hospital, and years later, his meeting a fellow Nerdfighter, Esther, who died of cancer in 2010 (Esther would later serve as the inspiration for Hazel, the book’s narrator).

“I think the biggest gift was my friendship with Esther,” he said. “Esther’s life, the way that she lived it, generously, imperfectly, empathically taught me that the real hero’s journey is not—as I had always believed—the journey from weakness to strength. What Esther knew, and what Augustus Waters must learn in The Fault in Our Stars is that the real hero’s journey is the journey from strength to weakness.”

Green could have ended the night right there, but he had far more to say. Much like The Fault in Our Stars subverts the conventional wisdom of what it’s like to be a kid living with cancer, Green wanted to clarify the public’s perception of what it’s like for someone famous to meet someone like Esther. “I guess from the outside it seems like I jumped into the abyss with Esther…” But this could not be more inaccurate. “I wish I were that heroic. From where I was standing, the true story is that Esther jumped into the abyss with me, because I was the one that was angry and hopeless and saw no meaning in life as it truly exists. And all this was true for Green. But here’s where things changed: Esther told John that she knew her life was difficult—that she was by no means content with her constant struggles—but that she had had a good life. “That realization was crucial to The Fault in Our Stars,” John Green said.

The Green brothers have bridged together people of various fandoms and have created an enormous community–one whose influence extends far beyond the Internet–this past year, John and Hank, their fans, and a plethora of other online creators raised nearly $500,000 for various charities with their “Project for Awesome” endeavor.

Clearly, the “Nerdfighter” moniker has taken on a life of its own. In addition to the weekly Vlogbrother installments, John puts on his teaching hat in his “Crash Course” series. Whether he’s talking about romance in an airport, or the fall of the Roman Empire, John throws himself into whatever he’s doing with aplomb, striking an artful balance between humor and sincerity. It’s a formula that’s worked: he’s educating us without ever talking down to us and it’s what has made him so beloved by his readers.

“That’s what Nerdfighteria is,” Green said,” regarding the “Nerd” empire he and his brother have helped build. “We work together to build meaning, like reading a good book that helps us to feel un-alone. Every reading of a book is a collaboration between a reader and writer. I just want to say at the outset, thank you, because this collaboration has been the great joy of my professional life so far. It has helped me, to borrow a phrase from the great Maurice Sendak, ‘to fall in love with the world.’ And I hope that it’s helped you too.”

And to all fans across the world, I have no doubt that it has.

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