John Green, Live at Carnegie Hall
Hank and John Green at Carnegie Hall. GIFs courtesy of supcake.
You'd think we were seeing the Beatles, from the fanatical screaming coming from the ground floor of Carnegie Hall. On stage weren't rock stars per se, but two bookish brothers from the Midwest: John Green, the critically adored young adult novelist, and Hank Green, best known for singing songs about Harry Potter on YouTube. (Perhaps they complement each other like John and Paul, too—John being better with words, Hank with the ear for melody.)
I've attended a number of literary events since I moved to New York in September--all enjoyable evenings, with free white wine and polite conversation. But the Greens' sold-out event, hyperbolically called “An Evening of Awesome,” was the first book thing that truly felt like a celebration.
And the Green brothers have a lot to celebrate: the first anniversary of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars (in the top 3 of our Best of the Year list, among many other year-end lists); the success of their online community, driven by the Greens' hyper-popular VlogBrothers YouTube channel; but most importantly, it was an appreciation of their fans, affectionately dubbed the Nerdfighters, who in turn returned that affection by screaming and hooting and clapping with the sort of youthful enthusiasm that was as endearing as it was loud.
Of the performance itself, the New York Times said it “had the polish of a really good high school talent show,” which sums up the show well. “An Evening of Awesome” was a variety show with readings and musical performances. Hank Green is likely not the most talented musician to ever grace the stage of Carnegie Hall, but his songs about science and Helen Hunt might have been the most earnest. Also among the stage guests were indie rock legend John Darnielle (aka The Mountain Goats), and a surprise appearance from Neil Gaiman, who participated in a live Q&A.
At the beginning of the show, John Green told a joke about a man trapped in a hole from which he could not escape. Another man walks by the hole, and instead of finding a rope, jumps into the same hole. The punch line: "Now I am highly motivated to get you out of this hole." Green said he hoped his fiction was his way of jumping into the hole to join the reader. What makes Green's novels so beloved is that he is not afraid to sympathize and connect with teenagers—more specifically, those conflicts of self and identity that are so common with adolescents. (Green's popularity with adults may signal that these things are not outgrown after high school.)
Green also doesn't shy away from difficult topics. The Fault in Our Stars is about two teenagers with cancer. In its exploration of friendship and mortality, I saw shades of a close friend who had only a year ago been diagnosed with breast cancer. Last spring, I read Green's debut, Looking for Alaska, a novel about losing a close friend. My best friend died when I was 21, and I saw a painful amount of myself in Miles Halter's search for meaning in that grief. These subjects are handled with great empathy and levity.
The same could be about his online presence. Sure, John Green is a natural on internet mediums that teens gravitate toward, like YouTube and Tumblr, but it has more to do with his ability to understand adolescence than his internet savvy. Throughout the evening, it became clear to me that what the Nerdfighters seek to do is bring out the best of adolescent experience. As a community, it feels built for smart teens who feel misunderstood for their love of books.
After the show, mingling at the post-show reception (free white wine!), I told someone that I wished I had had these books, this community when I was fifteen. She said she was just thankful to have them now. The Fault in Our Stars might be Green's most powerful novel to date, but it's only the fourth book in his young career. And given that he and his brother just sold out the nearly three-thousand-seat Carnegie Hall (not to mention the ten thousand people who streamed the event live), I wouldn't be surprised if the next novel was bigger and the next "Evening of Awesome" was in a larger venue.
I also spoke with John Green briefly, just as he was leaving the reception. I asked him how he was still standing after putting so much energy into a three-hour show.
"I'm just getting started," he said, as he grabbed his jacket and his brother Hank, and headed out the door, onto the next thing.