Book Review: Looking for Alaska by John Green
While looking for books written by someone under the age of 30 for my Reading Challenge 2015, I saw John Green's Looking for Alaska listed. Indeed, I verified, he was 27 when Looking for Alaska was published in March 2005.
Check off one more category.
After reading and loving The Fault in Our Stars, this decision was a no brainer!
In staying true to publishing spoiler-free reviews, there will be quite a bit about this book that I cannot write. I will warn you, though... If you know nothing about this book, Jon Snow, you should avoid the summary given on the title and copyright pages of the e-book. I vaguely knew some plot points: I knew Alaska was a teenage girl and I knew the story took place in a boarding school. But the summary just jumped right out at me and I stupidly read it. Nevertheless, the reading experience was still rewarding.
The protagonist, a high school junior named Miles Halter, nicknamed Pudge because he is so skinny, decides to attend boarding school to find his Great Perhaps. His Great what? Miles enjoys memorizing people's last words. And the last words of the poet Francois Rabelais were "I go to seek a Great Perhaps." Miles adopts these words as his own mission statement because his life is so entirely mundane.
The novel is broken into two parts: before and after. While it's not hard to guess the nature of the event that this counting centers around, it would be spoilery to name it.
During the before, Miles develops friendships with a group of ragtag intellectual prankster teens. I loved every one of them. I do think Green spends most of his effort developing Miles, his roommate Chip the Colonel, and the love interest Alaska, but the book is 221 pages long, so I'm not going to fault him for moving his story along.
These teenagers sound like teenagers. One aspect about The Fault in Our Stars that bothered me was the teen dialogue that sounded like it was straight from Dawson's Creek. I rationalized the overly-intellectual dialogue in Stars as Green making teenagers sound as smart as they think they are.
But in Alaska, these are intellectual teens who sound smart, but not worldly.
Miles can appreciate how seeking a Great Perhaps is a worthwhile goal for him, but when a girl offers him a blow job, neither one of them knows what to do. Before boarding school, Miles had never smoked or drank. He had also never ironed anything. He had never encountered a teacher who was not immediately happy to have such an enthusiastic learner in the room. He's a smart kid, growing up, making mistakes, sometimes getting caught, and figuring out who he wants to be. Some people compare him to Holden Caulfield, but I find Miles much more likable.
And Green's authentic characterization extends to two adults as well: the dean of students Mr. Starnes, the Eagle, and the World Religions teacher Dr. Hyde, the Old Man. The teenage lens sees each man as partial nemesis and partial mentor. While they both enforce various rules, the students at Culver Creek Boarding School know that, ultimately, these authority figures care about them.
On several occasions, Mr. Starnes finds it difficult not to smile at certain teen antics. And while he busts kids for rule-breaking, he really doesn't dole out the majority of punishments. A peer jury determines the fate of those caught for various minor infractions. Oh, he'll expel a student for the major infractions (genital contact, drinking, illegal drug use), but those rarely occur.
And Dr. Hyde plays an integral role in helping Miles answer the book's central philosophical question, "How will we ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering?"
Sure, this teacher is old-school. He lectures, assigns readings, and gives daily quizzes and regular exams. No group work or project-based learning from Dr. Hyde. Instead, he fills their heads with information about Islam, Buddhism, and Christianity because he wants them to have a base of knowledge to form their own opinions and conclusions. He tells them on the first day of his class that his purpose is to help them pursue meaning: "What are the rules of this game, and how might we best play it?"
The question about the labyrinth of suffering builds through most of the before section of the novel and the after section focuses on answering the question.
And therein lies the beauty of this book. The characters are faced with a dilemma. They have a mystery that they spend the second portion of the book trying to solve. But there is no one definite solution. They must learn to cope with ambiguity, which is one of those lessons that people have a particularly difficult time with.
And in trying to cope with this ambiguous situation, they ultimately learn how to navigate the labyrinth of suffering. Miles writes a final essay to Dr. Hyde detailing the message of hope and forgiveness that he has learned. Have a few tissues nearby.
Sadly, many small-minded people object to this book because of smoking, drinking, and sex. The book has been frequently banned. People who ban books are beyond my scope of understanding.
John Green has a very spoilery reader's guide called Questions about Looking for Alaska. Regarding how some people view his book as "dirty," he writes a few things. My favorite: "I mean, just as another aside, we are discussing perhaps 800 words in a 70,000 word novel. More words are devoted to thinking about Buddhist conceptions of the desire-suffering cycle than are devoted to thinking about blow jobs."
Thank you, John Green, for some context.
I don't think I would feel comfortable recommending this book to a 6th grader. A ten-year-old might feel uncomfortable reading about blow jobs. But an 8th grader? Particularly an 8th grader who is struggling with their own labyrinth? Yes. Because the message of hope and forgiveness is worth reading.
Now I just need to read Paper Towns before the movie comes out.