Review: Looking for Alaska

Sixteen-year-old Miles Halter’s adolescence has been one long nonevent – no challenge, no girls, no mischief, and no real friends. Seeking what Rabelais called the “Great Perhaps,” he leaves Florida for a boarding school in Birmingham, AL. His roommate, Chip, is a dirt-poor genius scholarship student with a Napoleon complex who lives to one-up the school’s rich preppies. Chip’s best friend is Alaska Young, with whom Miles and every other male in her orbit falls instantly in love. She is literate, articulate, and beautiful, and she exhibits a reckless combination of adventurous and self-destructive behavior. She and Chip teach Miles to drink, smoke, and plot elaborate pranks. Alaska’s story unfolds in all-night bull sessions, and the depth of her unhappiness becomes obvious.–From Goodreads

John Green’s Looking for Alaska is one of the best books I have read in a long time, if not one of the best books I have ever read. I loved it and admittedly sobbed more than I have during almost any reading I’ve ever done. As I posted before, I thought Paper Towns was brilliant, but I noticed a difference when reading Alaska. In between the two books, I watched all of John Green’s vlogs (seriously, ALL of them). When I read this time, I could hear him telling me the story more so than I could when I read Paper Towns. Alaska is a beautifully written book with excellent characterization and poignant philosophical questions, and I’m sure I would have enjoyed it anyway, but it was even better when I could practically hear John Green’s voice while I read the book.

This has made me start thinking about how our relationships with authors has changed over time. When I read most books, the author is a sort of unimaginable identity, like the wizard of Oz pulling all the strings while hiding behind a curtain. I know that the author had to exist to write the book, but until recently, I rarely thought about who they were as people. Of course, I read biographies and learned about the history behind many books, but even so there was a distancing and detachment. Now, though, I read authors’ blogs all the time and hear about what they are doing with their kids, their positions on political issues, their own thoughts on books. The connection is much more personal, and I think that impacts the reading of their work. Usually for me, I think it enhances it, but I can imagine some instances in which that might not be the case. Obviously, there are some horrible people out there who still manage to create beautiful art; it might occasionally be hard to respect the art if you can’t respect the artist. Thus far, that has not been an issue in my experience. The more YA author blogs I read, the more I am convinced that there are some very cool, very impressive people out there writing these days.

Quotable Quotes from Looking for Alaska

“When adults say, ‘Teenagers think they are invincible’ with that sly, stupid smile on their faces, they don’t know how right they are. We need never be hopeless, because we can never be irreparably broken. We think that we are invincible because we are. We cannot be born, and we cannot die. Like all energy, we can only change shapes and sizes and manifestations. They forget that when they get old. They get scared of losing and failing. But that part of us greater than the sum of our parts cannot begin and cannot end, and so it cannot fail.”

“The only way out of the labyrinth of suffering is to forgive.”

“He was gone, and I did not have time to tell him what I had just now realized: that I forgave him, and that she forgave us, and that we had to forgive to survive in the labyrinth. There were so many of us who would have to live with things done and things left undone that day. Things that did not go right, things that seemed okay at the time because we could not see the future. If only we could see the endless string of consequences that result from our smallest actions. But we can’t know better until knowing better is useless. And as I walked back to give Takumi’s note to the Colonel, I saw that I would never know. I would never know her well enough to know her thoughts in those last minutes, would never know if she left us on purpose. But the not-knowing would not keep me from caring, and I would always love Alaska Young, my crooked neighbor, with all my crooked heart.”

“So I walked back to my room and collapsed on the bottom bunk, thinking that if people were rain, I was drizzle and she was a hurricane.”

“Thomas Edison’s last words were ‘It’s very beautiful over there’. I don’t know where there is, but I believe it’s somewhere, and I hope it’s beautiful.”

“What is an “instant” death anyway? How long is an instant? Is it one second? Ten? The pain of those seconds must have been awful as her heart burst and her lungs collapsed and there was no air and no blood to her brain and only raw panic. What the hell is instant? Nothing is instant. Instant rice takes five minutes, instant pudding an hour. I doubt that an instant of blinding pain feels particularly instantaneous.”

“We are all going, I thought, and it applies to turtles and turtlenecks, Alaska the girl and Alaska the place, because nothing can last, not even the earth itself. The Buddha said that suffering was caused by desire, we’d learned, and that the cessation of desire meant the cessation of suffering. When you stopped wishing things wouldn’t fall apart, you’d stop suffering when they did.”

“You can say a lot of bad things about Alabama, but you can’t say that Alabamans as a people are duly afraid of deep fryers.”

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