A New Book Club, and Perhaps a Journey into the Literal Heart of Ethics

By Michaela Dwyer

“The Support Group, of course, was depressing as hell. It met every Wednesday in the basement of a stone-walled Episcopal church shaped like a cross. We all sat in a circle right in the middle of the cross, where the two boards would have met, where the heart of Jesus would have been.

So here’s how it went in God’s heart: The six or seven or ten of us walked/wheeled in, grazed at a decrepit selection of cookies and lemonade, sat down in the Circle of Trust, and listened to [Support Group Leader] Patrick recount for the thousandth time his depressingly miserable life story…

Then we introduced ourselves: Name. Age. Diagnosis. And how we’re doing today. I’m Hazel, I’d say when they’d get to me. Sixteen. Thyroid originally but with an impressive and long-settled colony in my lungs. And I’m doing okay.”

These are the words of Hazel Grace Lancaster, via John Green, describing for the first several pages of The Fault in Our Stars the cancer support group she is newly required to attend (reasons: isolation, depression—the latter of which she calls, like everything else, including cancer, “a side effect of dying”). Hazel’s (and Green’s) narrative voice is clear from the start: she tells it—her world—like it is to her, sans airbrushing or sentimentality. She is skeptical in a quintessentially teenager-y way, but she is not unempathetic (even with the somewhat ridiculous Patrick). She understands the function of the Support Group, the organization of individuals and their connections to each other; she knows that their experience of cancer is shared, albeit not homogeneous. The group assembled in the “Literal Heart of Jesus,” as Hazel begins to cheekily refer to it, produces the characters we (and Hazel) gradually get to know and, against its “depressing as hell” odds, it serves as an important setting for several events over the course of the novel.

John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, now available for check-out in Kenan’s library.

Hazel would probably shrug and chuckle at my fear of crudeness in using her Support Group as an entry point to talk about Kenan’s new staff-wide ethics book club (for which we read and discussed Green’s novel The Fault in Our Stars this past Monday). The differences here are obvious: the Kenan book club is not, ostensibly, a support group, and certainly not one oriented around an illness (or books “about” illness). And Hazel, of course, is not a real person—as Green makes plenty clear on his website’s FAQ page [1] for The Fault in Our Stars, as well as his author’s note: “Neither novels nor their readers benefit from attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species. I appreciate your cooperation in this matter.” The delivery of such words feels a little tongue-in-cheek, but I can fully envision Green saying them, as if it’s the most natural sentiment in the world. I can also envision Hazel saying them in a similar tone: undetached, straight-up real-talk, cut from the same humor and nuance that governs our living days (Hazel’s, and all the other characters’, in the novel; ours, in this so-called “real world”).

On Monday, our staff huddled around a conference call with Green and listened to him talk about why he writes books about teenagers, aimed at a teenage audience (thus the category Young Adult, or “YA”). He explained that this was always his intent as a writer, from his early days studying English and Religion and then working as a chaplain in a children’s hospital to now, writing and selling millions of copies of his several books, producing an enormously popular YouTube series with his brother, Hank, and directing a large-scale web-based fundraiser for charities around the world called Project for Awesome. For Green, writing from an adolescent voice feels closest to life itself. “I don’t like to talk about the meaning of life with artifice,” he said. (And neither does Hazel, whose acerbic tone crafts both her and our understanding of her life with cancer, and shuns an over-sentimentalized language of illness. Artifice isn’t really her thing.)

And so the image of all of us—all grown-ups, in a way, or at least all past the age of 21—clutching copies of Green’s book and discussing it with greater openness and emotional engagement than I’ve experienced in many undergraduate English classes felt a little ironic. Adults reading Young Adult literature—this unusual dynamic is something I feel every time I read Rookie, a “website for teenage girls” edited by 17-year-old wunderkind Tavi Gevinson (and one of my favorite sources of reading material online). I regularly devour Rookie’s content much in the way that I devoured Green’s novel. Both seem to move at the same pace life does, both eschew abstraction and pretension (but not quirkiness and intelligence) and are relatable by nature.

A good narrative voice does this regardless of subject matter—but what if the subject matter concerns cancer, and not seductive vampires or high school hallway drama? I hear Hazel once again: well, what if? I doubt Hazel would privilege her particular story over any other one; if you read or have read the book, you’ll see how conscientious she is about trying to reduce what she believes is the harm she—via her disease—inflicts on everyone she’s close to. It’s easy to attribute this philosophy to things like her superior understanding of the gravity of cancer, a burgeoning adolescent self-awareness, or her alignment with realism over romance. But none of these isolated qualities define Hazel, and much like a “real” teenager—or person of any age—her desires and viewpoints shift and expand as the story progresses, and as we see other characters compelled to be close to her. (We’re compelled, too).

And this is not “despite” her cancer, because to say so subtracts an element of her blazing, complex, Literal-Heart-of-Jesus-spunky humanity. The popularity of The Fault in Our Stars is a declaration—from its inception to its immense worldwide readership to our choice to read it for our inaugural book club meeting—that its made-up story matters. The power of this story, and stories like it, lies in its ability to matter, to resonate, to belong differently for and to everyone who reads it—as we learned, in real-time, on Monday, when each of us described our experience of the book with each other and with Green. Getting to know Green’s characters in this novel and then talking about them together felt, in a way, like a step toward visualizing what ethics looks like, or could look like, in everyday life—even, and perhaps especially, when everyday life is greater attuned to our physical circumstances. Part of me (the part of me that chose this book for us to read) feels like YA literature sometimes accesses a fuller vision of everydayness than capital-L “Literature”: or, the books we’re told, as “adults,” best reflect our lives and our concerns. (But, we’ll see—next up is journalist Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity—a recent landmark work of nonfiction, and, I’m predicting, no less complex or immediate.) Either way, being a part of this book club at this point in my life feels like a move toward reclaiming literature that really speaks and sings, regardless of genre or intended age group. And I’m thrilled to keep huddling together each month to do so.

[1] It is my Literal-Heart-of-Jesus-sacred-duty to advise you not read this spoiler page if you have not read, and plan on reading, this novel.