Young Adult Education

Young Adult Education: ‘An Abundance of Katherines' by John Green

Like most well-adjusted people, I did not like high school. I don’t want to go back and I’m positive it wasn’t the best time of my life. The best time of my life definitely will not involve multiple stints in braces and an unfortunate collection of studded belts.  Yet John Green’s books make me feel kind of nostalgic for high school. It helps that An Abundance Of Katherines is far more exciting and hilarious than my high school experience (although, in retrospect, the studded belts are a little funny).

An Abundance Of Katherines follows Colin Singleton, a 17-year-old former child prodigy. He can instantly anagram anything (“good at anagramming,” for example, becomes “dragon maggot mania”). His best friend is an overweight, sarcastic Muslim named Hassan who would rather watch TV at his parents’ house than attend college. Colin knows 11 languages, reads 400 pages a day and won $10,000 on a kids’ game show. He also just got dumped by a girl named Katherine, who so happened to be the 19th girl named Katherine he’s dated.

You know, he’s your average 17-year-old.

So what’s a boy to do when he’s heartbroken and plagued by fears of being a washed-up prodigy who will never amount to anything? According to Hassan, this is “a complicated problem with a very simple solution”. A road trip, of course! There is no problem too big or small to be solved by a road trip, and that’s why it’s my favorite plot device in all of literature or film (aside from the plot where two best friends who everyone knows are perfect for each other fall in love, or the plot where 2 cops with wildly different styles have to work together and eventually become friends, or…well, it’s definitely in my top 5 favorite plots, at least).

When Colin and Hassan see a sign advertising the grave of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, “the corpse that started World War I”, they turn off the highway and end up in Gutshot, Tennessee.  There they meet former-Goth-chick-turned-popular-girl Lindsey Lee Wells and her mother, Hollis. Hollis owns a factory that makes tampon strings and she lives in a gloriously pink mansion. The factory provides almost all the jobs in Gutshot—the town’s economy is hanging by a (tampon) string.  Hollis offers Colin and Hassan a job and, because this would be a really short book if they didn’t accept it, the boys end up spending their summer in Gutshot, interviewing the town’s residents for a history project Hollis is undertaking.

Colin has a hard time noticing much of what’s going on around him because he’s intently working on The Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability. He’s convinced if he can only work out an equation to accurately predict the course of a relationship, it will explain his Katherines past and warn him of Katherines future. More importantly, it will be his ticket to mattering, to fame, to a place in history. To Colin, doing something that matters is all that matters. His biggest fear is being just another smart kid, one more child prodigy who failed to capitalize on his potential.

Of course, Colin learns that some things can’t be explained or predicted, and life has a way of disproving your theorems. Over the summer he learns a little about life, a little about love and a lot about wild pig hunts.

John Green’s books stand out because they feel real. Maybe some of the situations in the book are out of the ordinary (like the aforementioned wild pig hunt), but the characters and their desires are always authentic. We’d all like a witty, supportive friend like Hassan or a connection like Colin finds with Lindsey Lee Wells. Even though I typically read YA books with a female protagonist, Colin’s feelings are universal ones that apply to both ladies and gents. After all, who hasn’t suffered a heart-wrenching breakup or worried about being a washed-up hack? An Abundance of Katherines is an amazing book, whether you’re a teenager or an adult.

Some Highlights:

-Colin’s theorem hinges on this belief: “The world contained exactly two kinds of people: Dumpers and Dumpees. A lot of people will claim to be both, but those people miss the point entirely. You are predisposed to either one fate or the other.”

-If you’re interested in math (which I am not, but I’ll accept that other people may be), the book’s appendix explains how Colin’s theorem actually works. There are graphs, numbers and equations and my mind started to wander like when I had to take Finite Mathematical Models in college. But maybe math is your thing. No judgment here!

-The book features footnotes, which will make you feel smart, like you’re reading Nabokov or something.

-The fast food chain Hardee’s is practically a character. I read the words “Monster Thickburger” more times in this book than I have in the rest of my life combined.

-Hassan is one of the most delightfully unique characters I’ve read in recent memory. He peppers his dirty jokes with Arabic phrases (don’t worry, they’re explained in the footnotes), he makes fun of Colin like it’s his job (and, since he’s been unemployed since graduating, it might as well be) and he’s just really into Judge Judy. When his dad insults him by saying he needs get a job and “learn the value of not watching that awful Judge Judy,” Hassan responds by saying, “It’s one thing to accuse me of laziness. But to malign the good name of American’s greatest television judge—that’s below the belt.”

-One of the most important things Colin learns over the summer is that his dream of getting famous for achieving some sort of intellectual greatness really doesn’t matter that much in the face of an infinite future. The only things that stick around are the stories we pass on. As Colin puts it, “I will get forgotten, but the stories will last. And so we all matter—maybe less than a lot, but always more than none.”

Are there any young adult books you’d like to see in next week’s column? Let us know in the comments!

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