Feb 2, 2009

Paper Towns by John Green

Quentin Jacobsen has always been a little bit in love from afar with his neighbour, the beautiful and popular Margo Roth Spiegelman. They went from being friends in childhood to being more or less estranged in highschool. One night, two weeks before their senior prom, Margo opens Quentin’s window and invites him to join her in an all-night adventure that involves a series of elaborate pranks. However, something happens after that night. I don’t want to give too much away because Paper Towns is part mystery, and so the less you know the better. But Quentin spends most of the book, occasionally accompanied by his friends Ben and Radar and by Margo’s friend Lacey, following a series of clues that might either lead to a terrible truth or to something none of them had imagined.

...and now begins the hard task of trying to explain why I loved Paper Towns so much. There are, of course, the usual John Green things. Realistic characters you wish you could be friends with, a great sense of humour, fantastic writing and dialogue, minority characters that are portrayed as real people and not just ethnic labels on two legs, references to music and allusions to other literary works, and so on.

This alone is enough to make me like this book a lot. But the reason why Paper Towns touched me so much is because it deals brilliantly with things that matter deeply to me. Things that matter deeply to people in general, I daresay. The problem of communication–who hasn’t wondered about this? Who hasn’t spent time thinking about the extent to which we can truly understand other people, get a glimpse of the world through their eyes, overcome the limitations that are inherent to being who we are, whoever we are, and step into another's shoes for a moment?

Communication, empathy, intimacy, compassion, connection—they all have to do with this. And they’re such big parts of what being human is all about.

Paper Towns also alerts us to something that is easy to overlook. I think we all understand that we tend to dehumanize our so-called enemies, and so it’s easier to watch out for that. But it’s harder to watch out for the fact that we can also dehumanize the people we admire or love. By imagining them to be perfect, we are not allowing them any emotions that don’t conform to our mental picture of them. As Quentin says:
And so I could not imagine her as a person who could feel fear, who could feel isolated in a room full of people, who could be shy about her record collection because it was too personal to share. Someone who might read travel books to escape having to live in the town that so many people escape to. Someone who—because no one thought she was a person—had no one to really talk to.
Imagination, of course, is limited. But no matter how close we are to a person, imagining how they see the world is all we can do. Still, I guess it’s good to have in mind that there are things beyond what we can imagine; that we cannot limit people to what we comprehend:
Imagining isn’t perfect. You can’t get all the way inside someone else. [spoiler removed] But imagining being someone else, or the world being someone else, is the only way in. It is the machine that kills fascists.
I think reading plays quite an important role here, actually. One of the reasons why I read fiction is exactly because it’s a way in. It’s a window or a mirror or a little bit of both (which is okay, I think, because even with mirrors, the images we get can tell us something new). Maybe I am, like the lolcats would put it, DOIN IT RONG. But you know what, I don’t think so. And John Green actually says something along those lines in this speech. I know I’ve linked to it before, but the thing is just so good that I have to do it again. So take a moment to read it if you haven't yet.

Also, I think it’s actually very hard to deal with these themes in a story and make them sound as important as they actually are but not overdramatic. Paper Towns does it perfectly, though. I can’t think of a book that does it better.

I’m leaving out so many other things I loved. The thing about metaphors having implications (I think they do too), the relationships between the characters, the absolutely perfect, beautiful, bittersweet ending (it wouldn’t be as powerful a book if it ended any differently. It couldn’t do what it does if it ended any differently). But I’ve gone on for long enough. If you haven’t yet, read Paper Towns. It’s a funny and smart and engaging and touching and important book. (I’ll shut up now.)

A few more particularly brilliant bits:
I said nothing again. I just wanted her to keep talking—that small voice tense with the excitement of almost knowing things, making me feel like something important was happening to me.

And I felt the unbroken line of me and of her stretching back from our cribs to the dead guy to acquaintanceship to now. And I wanted to tell her that the pleasure for me wasn’t planning or doing or leaving; the pleasure was in seeing our strings cross and separate and then come back together—but that seemed too cheesy to say, and anyway, she was getting up.

Stranding before this building, I learn something about fear. I learn that it is not the idle fantasies of someone who maybe wants something important to happen to him, even if the important thing is horrible. It is not the disgust of seeing a dead stranger, and not the breathlessness of hearing a shotgun pumped outside of Becca Arrington’s house. This cannot be addressed by breathing exercises. This fear bears no analogy to any fear I knew before. This is the basest of all possible emotions, the feeling that was with us before we existed, before this building existed, before the earth existed. This is the fear that made fish crawl onto dry land and evolve lungs, the fear that teaches us to run, the fear that makes us bury our dead.

After all that hearing, he [Whitman] writes, “I am exposed…cut by bitter and poisoned hail”. That was perfect, I thought: you listen to people so that you can imagine them, and you hear all the terrible and wonderful things people do to themselves and to one another, but in the end the listening exposes you even more than it exposes the people you’re trying to listen to.

It is saying these things that keeps us from falling apart. And maybe by imagining these futures we can make them real, and maybe not, but either way we must imagine them. The light rushes out and floods in.
Reviewed at:
Bold Blue Adventures
Book Nut
Stuff as Dreams are Made On
Casual Dread
Fyrefly’s Book Blog
Worducopia
The Bluestocking Society
Bending Bookshelves
Presenting Lenore
Thoughts of Joy
It’s All About Books
Em’s Bookshelf
Reviewer X
Biblio File
Becky’s Book Reviews
Once Upon a Bookshelf
Life in the Thumb
Book Addiction
Worducopia
Kiss a Cloud
Regular Ruminations

And Renay has many, many more.

(Let me know if I missed yours.)

41 comments:

  1. Hey!:) This sounds like a fantastic book! The first cover is so haunting. I loved it at first sight.. and then I got to reading your review and loved the book even more! I am definitely going to read this one soon!

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  2. The cover of this book probably would have prevented me from picking it up in a bookstore, but your review definitely makes me want to read it. Just proves the old adage, I guess. Thanks!

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  3. Wasn't it amazing? So glad that you enjoyed it Nymeth. I just wish he would write faster :p OK, I'll leave poor John Green alone now and let him take his time...it's quality, not quantity :p I want the angry margo cover :( All they had in the bookstore when I went was happy margo, so I got that one because I couldn't wait :p

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  4. And I continue to wonder why this book isn't on my shelf yet. I really need to acquire it...like...yesterday or a week ago or so what with everybody saying how awesome it is and stuff.

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  5. I'm intrigued! I think I may have to bump this up on my list!

    Your reviews are always SO GOOD. They are detailed, but not too detailed. I can tell you put a lot of thought into them and only wish I could do the same in my reviews!

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  6. Oh Nymeth, Nymeth, Nymeth...I almost wish I hadn't read your review! Because you know the immense yearning I am now having to go pull this off the shelf, don't you? Seriously, it almost physically hurts.

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  7. Oh, hearts! All your thoughts are my thoughts. John Green amazes me for his ability to write about concepts that are important to teens, but that also can help remind adults about things they've forgotten.

    Why is there not an official John Green fanclub with little badges on them that have DFTBA on the back.

    Also, wow. Thanks for linking to my (possibly creepy?) collection of reviews. It's safe to say I'm not even close to having all the Paper Towns reviews there, but at least I have yours and the ones you linked to add. :D

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  8. HI, I didn't read any of this post but wanted you to know that I will once I read the book.

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  9. Very well written. I loved this book so much!

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  10. After your Sunday Salon book I added this book to my library list because it is checked out and I won't have it for a few weeks anyway!

    I really have to stay off the library website. It is not like I don't have plenty of books to read of my own!

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  11. Enjoyed reading your insightful review, Nymeth! Will have to add this one to my wishlist as well since so many bloggers have been raving about it. ;)

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  12. Oooh.. really good review! Makes me want to read this book more, and I CAN'T.

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  13. this book is sure getting a lot of good reviews! Must be something to it huh?! :o)

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  14. My last trip to the library, all of Green's books were checked out. Must try again!

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  15. wow, that sure sounds great. I've never heard of John Green but he sounds like an author I'd like. I often think about how much of other people we really understand. It was one of my relationship struggles for a long time and something I still pay special attention to.

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  16. Ramya: I was very glad to get the first cover...it's my favourite too. I hope you enjoy the book!

    verbatim: Normally I'm not a fan of covers with actual pictures of people on them. But after reading the book I like these more.

    Chris: I wish he'd write faster too! And Neil also. Ah well, at least they have blogs/twitters/etc. that allow us to read other things by them while we wait for the next book :P I got the blue cover! I was so glad. But you know, after reading the book the yellow one grew on me. And now I kinda wish I had both :P

    Megan: Yes! Get it yesterday :P

    Andrea, thank you so much :) I tend to go on forever, but I also try hard to avoid spoilers. And you know, I really think you do a great job with yours.

    Debi: Think of how much you have to look forward to! The anticipation is part of the fun :P

    Renay: There should be one! I'd wear the badge every day <3 He said in one of his live shows that those things stand out more when you're a teen because you're experiencing them for the first time, but they never really cease to be important. And I so agree. Also, the links are not creepy! It's a useful resource :P

    Care, I look forward to your thoughts on it! And I sometimes save reviews for after reading the book too, especially if I think I'll read it in the near future.

    Kailana: I hope whoever has it returns it soon! And yeah...libraries can be addicting :P

    Melody: I really think you'll like John Green :)

    Michelle: Sorry :( I have the impression he keeps getting more and more popular (or maybe I just notice the buzz about him more now), so who knows...maybe there will be UK editions eventually and the book will become easier to find. You can get Looking for Alaska there, though! And that one's brilliant too.

    Deslily: It's hard to resist John Green!

    Jenclair, I hope you manage to get a hold of them. They're all so good!

    Joanna: Yes, I predict that you will like him! (But please don't hate me if I'm wrong :P) And yeah, I think about that too. It's so easy to assume things about people, and it's so common to be wrong.

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  17. Hi Nymeth, as I've said in my comment to your earlier post on John Green, I must go check him out. Great review! Love the quotes you picked out too.

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  18. I loved this book too, although not quite as much as Looking for Alaska, John Green is amazing.

    Having read your other post I can't believe it didn't sell well in the Uk!

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  19. great review, this sounds very good!
    'Communication, empathy, intimacy, compassion, connection—they all have to do with this. And they’re such big parts of what being human is all about.'- perfectly said.
    http://thebookworm07.blogspot.com/

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  20. I've been wanting to read this one for a while, but after reading your review, I really, really want to read it. Thanks!

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  21. Your review blew me away. I just finished this book a week ago and have yet to find the right words to express my thoughts...I think I should just link to your review and call it good!! :)

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  22. i <3 John Green. :) Loved this book.

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  23. I'm not familiar with John Green, but after reading your review (and some of the comments), I think I'll have to add this to my wish list. I love meeting "realistic characters you wish you could be friends with" in books!

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  24. Hmmm, I've read a lot about John Green and his books from you and other bloggers (among them Dewey and Chris) but sadly I've yet to see a John Green book here in the Philippines. Though bookstores here get supplies from both the UK and US, you'll never see a John Green book here. Then again I haven't visited that mall-like. five-story bookshop in the very expensive part of the metro for fear of losing my sanity not to mention any amount of cash I saved for books. Hahaha!

    Maybe I should ask my US-based sister to buy them for me. Or maybe I should pester my favorite bookchain to stock them. Because I think I'll enjoy John Green's books.

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  25. Isn't it SO great when your expectations are completely met with a book. I'm thrilled that you loved this one, Nymeth.

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  26. Wow, that was an awesome review! I loved this one as well, and I agree, it is hard to explain without giving away too much about the book.

    I have to say, I think it led up to an awesome conclusion. It could have gone any number of sappy directions that would have not fit the tone of the book, and it went with one that just fit really well.

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  27. Lalalalalalalalala...not reading this post until I read the book...lalalalalalalalalala.

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  28. Okay, okay I just have to go read this now! It sounds better and better the more I read about it. Why are there two covers? Were they released at the same time? no one seems to have addressed this, or I missed it. I'm curious.

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  29. I loved this book almost as much as I loved Looking for Alaska, and that's saying a lot.

    I'm curious: which cover did your book have, and which one do you like better?

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  30. oh my I need to read these books fast! (I said that already didn't I?). I think Looking for Alaska will be my next read, but I'm torn between that one and the Brief Wondrous life of Oscar Wao (which we just got it in, in a brand new UK cover!)...

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  31. Alice, I'm glad you liked them! I went a little overboard with quotea, but the writing is just SO good.

    Alexa: I actually can't pick between the two. He's amazing indeed. And yeah, that is unbelievable...I guess it was bad marketing.

    Naida: :) I really think you'd enjoy this book.

    bermudaonion: I hope you enjoy it!

    Staci, you are too kind! I really look forward to reading your review.

    Em: I <3 him too :)

    Laura: Me too! I'm very much a characters-oriented sort of reader. And he writes such good characters.

    Lightheaded: I hope you love him! And I suspect you will. He reminds me of our dear Douglas Coupland sometimes. I hope you manage to find his books there! If not, when's your birthday? :P

    Trish: It's the best bookish feeling there is! :)

    Kim: I completely agree. A different ending wouldn't have fit the book at all. And thank you!

    softdrink: lol :P I hope you love it!

    Jeane: They were released at the same time, yes. The two covers represent two completely different sides of the same person, and they go really well with the whole theme of the book. I'd explain better, but it's more fun to find out as you read it :P

    Fyrefly: I have blue Margo. I liked it better from the start because I prefer blue to yellow...but now that I've read it I like yellow Margo too, and I really appreciate the fact that both exist.

    Valentina: It's funny, I read those two books one right after the other! Immediately after, because it was during a very long flight. Both blew me away, and both made me cry in public, which was a bit awkward :P

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  32. Great review, Nymeth (as always). You and Chris and a bunch of others inspired me to read Looking for Alaska (which, incidentally, I listened to on my ipod on a plane and ended up crying in public as well, which is perhaps a touch more awkward than at least having the book in your hand as an excuse - or to hide behind!). :-p I'm so glad I read it, and I'm hoping to read more by Green this coming year. Once I get through some of these stacks of library books, sigh...

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  33. Now I feel bad I kind of put this book aside... I received an ARC of this one a couple of months ago but the cover didn't grab me at the time (I know, silly me!) but now I keep hearing about it a lot and it sounds really wonderful. Thank you for the great review!

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  34. Darla: That must have been awkward indeed! I did hide behind the book as much as possible :P Anyway, you'll enjoy this one too for sure!

    Iliana: Sometimes the time just isn't right for a book. I hope it works for you if you try again!

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  35. I've been saving this book, yes that's one of my ocd things - the comfort of knowing that I have a wonderful book to read.

    So, I wasn't going to read your review. But. I'm weak. Fantastic review. I'll be starting this one soon :P

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  36. I wasn't going to read your review either, since I'm still in the middle of the book. But it seems that I'm weak too! Lovely review as always, Nymeth. I have blue Margo too.

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  37. Joanne and Alessandra, I'm really looking forward to your thoughts on the book. I hope you both love it!

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  38. I have heard such wonderful things about this book. I am looking forward to reading it one day. Wonderful review, Nymeth!

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  39. ooh I cannot WAIT to read this book! Thank you for your most excellent review. :)

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  40. I've heard so much about this and all of his books. I'll have to get around to reading them one day!!!

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  41. This is a great review! Thank you. So much detail.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.