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In which John Green discusses his past life as a book critic, the role of criticism in art, and how he reads books now. If you want to discuss books further, Rosianna and I have a book club:!

The Anthropocene Reviewed:

In a way, this video is a response or update to this video that introduced Crash Course Literature:

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Good morning, Hank, it's Tuesday. I'm making this video at a time distant for many of my books or movie adaptation stuff coming out so that it doesn't appear to be about me, which I really hope it isn't, but of course, I'm inevitably warped by my own experience. More on how I might be wrong later, actually. 

Okay, so I started out my writing career as a book reviewer. Between 2000 and 2005 I reviewed hundreds of books for Booklist magazine. I reviewed young adult novels and picture books and romance novels and books about boxing and books about early Islamic history and books about conjoined twins. The number of books about conjoined twins, by the way, is truly astonishing. Also, I've been lucky enough to review some great books for the New York Times book review, including Eleanor & Park and The Book Thief and The Hunger Games. This all happened back at the beginning of the age of everyone reviewing everything, a wave that I have ridden profitably, if at times uncomfortably, my entire adult life. In fact, my ongoing fascination with the format and the ubiquity of the review led me to my podcast, The Anthropocene Reviewed. I was like, "If people can review their haircuts and their breakfasts, why not cholera or the strange human habit of whispering?" 

So, to be clear, I am strongly in favor of reviewing. I think thoughtful analysis of art is vital to the creation of good art, and I think it can be super helpful to look at art through a lens, like looking at Game of Thrones through the lens of climate change, for instance, or looking at Jane Eyre through the lens of shifting gender norms. But I tend to be less moved by criticism in the colloquial sense of the word, like articles or videos explaining everything wrong with x, or fourteen reasons z is terrible, or whatever. 

Now of course it's important to point out flaws in art, that can help encourage the creation of better art, but I think the most important thing criticism can do it find and lift up important and beautiful work that might otherwise go unnoticed. I don't read to discover what's wrong with a story, although there are many somethings wrong with every story. I read to be moved in every sense of the word, to go to places I haven't been and to glimpse worlds I otherwise couldn't see, including the worlds deep within myself. And critics, whether in the New York Times or on Goodreads can help us to discover the books that will move us and also give us a framework through which to think about them. 

So, I think what we mean when we say a book is quote-unquote "good" is that it's worth our attention. A good book is one that, if read generously, will offer big gifts in return. And part of what frustrates me about the everything-wrong-with-x school of criticism is that it mostly makes the case for not paying attention to something, which I think is a case usually best made by not paying attention to something. Of course, there are exceptions, when really popular work is culturally destructive, for instance, but I just don't think that, in general, communities organized around hating art that deserves less attention are as productive as communities organized around loving art that deserves more attention. 

So that's how I try to read in critique, with an eye toward what about this experience is valuable and worthy of attention, what stories have expanded my universe or changed the way I think. Among recent reads, Melinda Gates's The Moment of Lift has changed the way I think about gender discrimination and its role in poverty and the graphic novel adaptation of Kindred has kept me thinking about the past's omnipresence. Both those books felt like really good investments of my attention, which is how I'm trying to think about reading these days. I'm trying to think less about whether something is good or bad and more about which works of art I should look at and how to look at them. 

Of course, I might be wrong about how to read and review. I do remember a time when the ideals that animated my life felt certain and important and I was absolutely sure that I was contributing to culture in a positive way, but that moment has passed and now I am uncertain about everything. I'm even uncertain about being uncertain! Should I have unshakeable beliefs? Maybe, but for now, I'm letting books and art and life shake them. 

Hank, I'll see you on Friday.