What follows is a quick review of The Fault in Our Stars by John Green and some philosophical food for thought for those that have read it.
Whenever I hear rave reviews about a book that appeals to both adults and kids, I’m a bit skeptical, especially if the book is neither SF nor action oriented (genres with proven crossover appeal). But my curiosity got the better of me, and so I read it. The Fault in Our Stars has very little action or even plot. It’s primarily about a group of cancer kids who play video games, read books, and talk about dying and the meaning of life. Without spoiling anything, the second half of the book was not enjoyable to read because we’re talking about cancer, and cancer sucks. I didn’t think it was particularly well written, yet the characters grew on me, and I would wholeheartedly recommend this book to everyone. Why? Because of its timeless philosophy.
They might kids, but Hazel, Isaac, and Augustus are wise beyond their years. They have to be. Death has a way of crystallizing things by stripping away life’s frills and leaving only what is important: love and meaning. What is refreshing about this book is not only what the characters talk about but how they do it. While Holden Caulfield was the epitome of teenage angst in The Catcher in the Rye–angry and bitter–these cancer kids by and large deal with their existential angst with humor and grace. If anguish is the hallmark of the human condition, then we can all learn a thing or two about handling it from these kids.
Any book that inspires people of all ages to reflect on their lives and to live to the best of their abilities gets my vote.
Philosophical Food for Thought
Philosophy permeates The Fault in Our Stars. You’ll find nuggets of philosophy sprinkled throughout. There are thoughts on love, religion, consciousness, and the meaning of life. John Green drops the names of several philosophers, but the one the book reminded me of most strongly wasn’t mentioned. His name is Friedrich Nietzsche.
Nietzsche is probably the most misunderstood philosopher of all time. He is famous (or infamous) for proclaiming “God is dead” and introducing the term “Ubermensch,” which was later twisted by the Nazis to serve their purposes. What did Nietzsche really mean, and what does it have to do with The Fault in Our Stars?
Nietzsche was concerned that people were relying on the comforts of religion to the point of avoiding pain. He believed that pain was necessary for people to achieve their potential. Once freed of their dependence on religion, they would be forced to think critically about their own values. Living life by their own will in accordance with these values, a person might become the “Ubermsench”–the Overman, Superman, Beyond Man–an entity who (among other things) is capable of looking back at his or her life with no regrets. For more on this, check out this video by Alain de Botton.
I am not sure if John Green intended for this book to be Nietzschean, but it feels that way. The kids in The Fault in Our Stars seem to be some flavor of atheist, agnostic, or “spiritual but not religious.” They face the truth unflinchingly and have no illusions about fighting the good fight. There is no glory in dying young. It sucks. But they make the best of their lives, free from regret, not because of any religious or moral code imposed from without, but because they live with a heightened awareness of the significance of life.
Consider Augustus’s letter at the end. About awareness, he writes, “The real heroes anyway aren’t the people doing things; the real heroes are the people NOTICING things, paying attention.” About having no regrets, he writes, “You don’t get to choose if you get hurt in this world, old man, but you do have some say in who hurts you. I like my choices. I hope she likes hers.”