My friend Grace gave me John’s Green book Paper Towns at a sleepover in the ninth grade. It was a spontaneous sort of thing, something totally Grace. She had an expansive book collection with the weirdest assortment of literature: Moby-Dick, several typical tween novels, every book relating to Jane Austen, gigantic books of poems, everything written by the Brontë sisters, and Molecular Biology for Dummies. But I saw the Paper Towns book cover sticking out from the bunch and asked Grace what it was.
“Only the best book ever,” was her response, and she gave it to me on the spot.
Sweet, little fourteen year-old Lily thought, a free book! Ka-chinnggg!
I meant to read it. Really, I swear I did. I sat it on my desk, primed it for opening, page-turning, answer-seeking, glory-basking. But soon, papers began to pile on top of it. Tea mugs and empty bowls of popcorn and chips filled my desk as the year went on. Stress and drama and heartache consumed my thoughts. Months passed; spring, summer and fall came and went. The novel got lost in the shuffle of my life and I completely forgot about it.
Fast forward…four years later. Freshman year of college. Over my very, VERY long winter break, I grew increasingly bored. I started eating more. I started writing more. I started reading more. And sure enough, on my bookshelf, I found Grace’s copy of Paper Towns. I picked it up, looking at the worn cover that had gone through years of teenage neglect, weary from the harsh Battle of Puberty. I’d already read several books during the break: The Victory Lab, Under the Banner of Heaven, Half the Sky to name a few. But I hadn’t read any fiction. Maybe the little John Green book would be the inaugural fiction book of the break? I remember thinking that it was too young for me; I always thought of John Green as a young adult writer, a literary genre I was quickly growing out of. But, I thought, maybe that’s what I needed: something not so densely packed and intense.
I sat down and opened to the first page. I read through the first paragraph, a piece about miracles and coincidences. And then I read the last sentence of that paragraph: “My miracle was this: out of all the houses in all the subdivisions in all of Florida, I ended up living next door to Margo Roth Spiegelman.” From then on, I was hooked. Beyond hooked. It was one of those “I’m so hooked on this book that I am not eating, sleeping or breathing until I finish it” kind of feelings.
For those who have never dipped into the world of John Green, he is a marvelous writer. Absolutely outstanding. Words fill his novels so easily and so mellifluously that it makes me wonder if I can ever get to his level of great storytelling. I read the novel in three hours, snatching up every word of every page. The drama, the romance, the mystery, the tragedy, I loved it all.
I have to say, I was completely wrong about Paper Towns being “too young adult”. The weird thing was, I related more to the story as a college kid than I probably would have as a ninth grader. I actually hail from a city two hours north of Orlando, where the story takes place; I do know what it means to live in a “paper town,” a place so delicately fake and empty that leaving seems like the only viable option. I also connected with the plight of Quentin Jacobsen and his undying love for Margo Roth Spiegelman as I looked back on my own disastrous teenage romances (or lack of romances, for that matter).
Moral of the story? You can gain something from any book; you just need to read it. Paper Towns was a real piece of enlightenment for me, and everyone has the same opportunity to find such a book (or books). My long overdue run-in with John Green’s novel is also a lesson in stepping outside your comfort zone. Here I was, reading all of these nonfiction books, something I’ve been doing for years, when all it took to really make me think was a work of young adult fiction. I now think of Paper Towns as How to Understand Modern Teenage Angst for Dummies. It is so universal and so extremely similar to my life that I connect with it on a far deeper level than I ever could’ve imagined when I received it four years ago.
So I invite all of you to find that book or that piece of art or that photograph or that whatever. Find that “thing” made by someone else that reminds you of your own humanity and your life and yourself. It’s one of the best gifts the world can give us: connectedness.
You can read more from Lily Herman on her blog.
Feature image via.