The Great American Read: Thoughts on John Green's Looking for Alaska

Jun 15, 2018

What is America's best loved novel? South Dakota Public Broadcasting and PBS bring you The Great American Read. The choices have been narrowed down to a list of 100 fiction books, and you can find the list and vote for your favorite here. Vote daily and tune in throughout the summer to In The Moment as we discuss books and all their many wonders. 

SDPB's Jackie Hendry took a look at the list to tell us about one of her best loved novels:

You probably know John Green from his 2012 novel The Fault in Our Stars, which was a phenomenally successful novel turned phenomenally successful movie about teens with cancer who fall in love. Or maybe you’ve heard of him more recently thanks to his latest book Turtles All The Way Down. But neither one of those titles got him a place on the list of 100 we have to choose from on The Great American Read. Instead, I’m delighted to see Green’s very first novel receive some much-deserved positive attention: 2005’s Looking for Alaska.

The story centers around Miles Halter, a teenager obsessed with famous people’s last words. When he decides to leave his hometown in Florida for boarding school in Alabama, he cites the French poet Francois Rabelais who’s last words were reportedly, “I go to seek a Great Perhaps.”

When Miles gets to his new school, he makes fast friends with his roommate—affectionately called The Colonel—and falls head over heels in love with a girl named Alaska Young. The novel is mostly teenage snark, pranks, and sneaking drinks after curfew as Miles slowly comes into his own…until something happens.

The book isn’t structured in chapters. Instead, every section has a header. “One hundred and thirty six days before,” and counting down until the crucial event. Then the headers count up, things like “Twenty one days after” as Miles, The Colonel, and the rest of their friends try to make sense out of what’s happened. Green has said the structure was partly inspired by the way he and many others began thinking about the world after 9/11, and how certain events can form clear before and after-markers in our lives. But Looking for Alaska is not a story of such national consequence. In the end, it’s a story about friendship, growth, and the challenge of moving forward after trauma.

I’m happy to see this book receive this level of positive attention, because it’s often been featured on a very different sort of list. Because of the characters’ frequent swearing, smoking and a scene depicting an especially awkward sort of teen foray into sexuality, Looking For Alaska was the top most-challenged book in American schools in 2015. But limiting the book to these elements means missing the forest for the trees, and this story is all about knowing when something is more than just the sum of its parts.

Looking for Alaska deals with a challenge most teens—and adults—will face in their lives: dealing with the aftermath of loss, even and especially when we don’t get the closure we so often wish for. And John Green gives us a story that grapples with that challenge realistically, but still manages to give readers a sense of hope that, in the end, friendship and forgiveness and time can be enough to see us through almost anything.

I’m Jackie Hendry, and one of my favorite novels is Looking for Alaska by John Green.