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In which John Green writes an open letter to a 15-year-old version of Hank discussing critical reading, the James Joyce novel Ulysses, nationhood, identity, metaphor, and other stuff that 15-year-olds find really super interesting.


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A Bunny
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((') (')
Good morning Hank, it's Monday.

I think we should do a theme week this week, and I think the theme should be "Open letters to our 15-year-old brothers". By the way, "Do you like my shirt?" is a rhetorical question, of course you like it. Dear 15-year-old Hank, hi, it's me, John Green, your brother.

I know I look old. 15-year-old Hank, life is a lot like pizza. One more question, is pizza American ... or is it Italian? Or Greek, or Brazilian, where they eat more pizza than anyone in the whole world?

Over 6,000 pizzerias in Brazil. 6,000. You could eat at a different pizzeria in Brazil every day for 18 years before you had to go to a place twice. Unless you were eating pizza twice a day, which, lets face it, I would be.

So Hank, you're 15. And like a lot of 15-year-olds, you feel that when you are forced to read books in English class and look for metaphor and symbolism and theme and all that stuff, you are sort of being tortured. By the way, 15-year-old Hank, I am now an author ... huh?

Here's what critical reading does, Hank: It helps us understand what to think about, and it gives us the framework for how to think about those things. Ok, so let me give you an easy to comprehend example of what I'm talking about from this famously incomprehensible James Joyce novel, Ulysses. (I'm getting to the pizza.) So there's this Irish-Jewish guy Bloom and he is sitting in a bar and one of the guys he's talking to says: "But do you know what a nation means?" "A nation?", says Bloom, "A nation is the same people living in the same place." And then everybody starts to make fun of Bloom for his stupid definition. And then Bloom adds: "Or also living in different places." But then as all the characters in the novel are laughing at Bloom, the reader realizes that, you know, we don't have a better definition for what constitutes a nation.

Or indeed what it means to have membership in any community. I mean, Bloom is in this weird inbetween-space because he is Irish but he is also Jewish, which many characters in the novel see as inherently un-Irish. But ultimately we all wanna feel like we're on the inside of our communities, whether it's Ireland or the United States or a high school clique or nerdfighteria.

And the question of whether there have to be outsiders in order for there to be insiders turns out to be a really interesting and difficult and complicated question, which is explored at length in Ulysses. And thinking about (as the guys at the bar clearly can't) what we really mean when we talk about these identifiers is a much better starting place for conversations about who is or is not American or who is or is not a nerdfighter, rather than the current method of discourse, which is just to be like: "Ahhhhhh! I am a giant squid of anger!

I do not listen to you!" (That form of communicating hurts not only the quality of discourse but also the quality of my glasses.) Which brings me to pizza, Hank. Is pizza American? Surely there is a lot of pizza in America, thank goodness.

Hmmmmmm. Pizza. But pizza was originally Italian although Italian pizza doesn't taste very much like this because this pizza is fortified with sodium, which is a mineral.

Or a vitamin. All I know is that it's good for you. In fact, Hank, pizza is so ubiquitous it's a little bit difficult to say what pizza even is.

I mean, sometimes it comes without cheese, sometimes it comes without sauce. Sometimes it comes without a crust in a bucket. And people are the same way, Hank, and nation is the same people living in the same place or also in different places.

There are Italians in Italy, and there are Italians in America, and there are Italians of Chilean descent. Everyone is laughing at Bloom in that bar but we should be the ones laughing at them. They think there is there is some easy, uncomplicated definition of Irishness.

But in fact, Hank, the fundamental thing that all critical reading does is reveal to us that there are not easy definitions that distinguish us from them. Reading with an eye toward metaphor allows us to become the person we're reading about while reading about them. That's why there are symbols in books and why your English teacher deserves your attention.

Ultimately it doesn't matter if the author intended a symbol to be there because the job of reading is not to understand the author's intent. The job of reading is to use stories as a way into seeing other people as we see ourselves and when we do that we can look out at the world and see a giant, endless set of beautiful variations of pizzas. The whole world composed of billions of beautiful, delicious pizzas.

Hank, I'll see ya on Wednesday. Did I make that entire video so that I could eat one piece of pizza on my diet? Maybe.