Looking for Alaska by John Green
Published in 2005 by Penguin Group
Reading time: 4h53
Rating: 4 Stars
It’s a common saying in my place of work that sometimes you just come across a book at the wrong time. My first reading of Harper Lee, for example, did not lead to a meeting of souls, but rereading it more than twenty years later let me to see the book with different eyes.
What aren’t as often mentioned are those occasions when you know you’ve read a book at just the right time. Perhaps it’s the literary equivalent of the squeaky wheel getting the grease, but often we don’t realize we love a book because of the ones that have come just before.
I bring this up because my recent reading both detracted from and contributed to my enjoyment of Looking for Alaska.
I was pre-disposed to like Looking for Alaska, because I’m a fan of John Green and his brother Hank. When I started it, I thought it well-written, but I enough similarities with The Perks of Being a Wallflower that I was more than a little disappointed. Awkward, solitary boy (Miles, in this case) starts first year at new school, meets a group of loveable misfits, including one beautiful-but-self-destructive girl, who instruct him on life and joining in.
In short, it felt like a book I had read before. That said, it is a John Green novel so I trusted the author enough to finish it. Even more luckily, this 30-in-30 project did not allow me time to set it down, even temporarily, and pick up a different book.
I found the second half of the book much more interesting. Considering the book is sprinkled with a countdown of “X days before”, it’s not much of a spoiler to say that a crisis occurs in the middle of the book. The kind of event that very much splits a life into “before” and “after”.
The second part of the novel has a much more philosophical bent, implying questions on the subjects of guilt, fatalism, death, religion, immortality and how to, as Green-quoting-Marquez-quoting-Bolívar puts it, how to escape this labyrinth of suffering.
I read this half of the novel under the influence of my recent discovery of the Stoic philosophers’* answers to some of these questions and how they match some of the coping strategies I’ve found useful in my own life. I don’t know if Green was aware of the Stoics when we wrote Looking for Alaska, and in truth it doesn’t matter, but I was pleased to find bits and pieces of stoicism hidden in the book, like diamonds for me to find.
*The Stoics are a very recent discovery of mine, so please no quizzes yet, but I’m nearly finished with A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine and my copy of Seneca’s Dialogues and Essays arrived in the store today. I look forward to reviewing both very soon.
The cover: Deceptively simply cover with layers of meaning. Excellently done.
What to read next: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Other bookselling notes: Despite my stoic raptures, I still think TFioS is the better novel, but since the publishers are unlikely to release the paperback until the film comes out, Alaska will be my follow-up suggestion. Also, more authors need to write good books with male protagonists that aren’t fantasy or about sports.
Next book, #4: Cain by José Saramago