Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Self Knowledge Is The Bomb

An Abundance of Katherines is not the best book you are ever going to read, it is not even the best book you are going to read by John Green. Objectively speaking I know this but still, it is unwaveringly my favourite. Technically speaking I know the best book by John Green is probably The Fault In Our Stars. You’ll have heard of The Fault in Our Stars – it’s the one about kids with cancer that they made a movie of this summer. The posters for it were everywhere. No one is ever going to make a movie out of An Abundance of Katherines; even I’m not convinced it would make a very good movie and I have illogically strong feelings about this book.
In the corners of Internet that I frequent, I have seen people have pretty heated debates about which John Green novel is the best, but I don’t join in because I would inevitably lose. (I am not a good loser.) I even once heard John Green describe An Abundance of Katherines as “The sullen Middle child” of his novels. I’m not here to tell you it's underrated because it’s pretty much not, it is essentially a fun young adult novel, reading it will not change your life.
This isn't my copy - this is a screen grab off of amazon
I only have the kindle edition cause I'm single-handedly trying
to bring down the publishing industry. Or something.

There’s just this one thing that annoys me about the reputation of the book and that is the one quote that people chose to talk about if they talk about it at all. I have seen this quote on twitter, as a sub-heading on blogs and plastered on walls in university bedrooms. The quote goes like this “What is the point of being alive if you don’t at least try to do something remarkable.” I see this quote and it drives me insane. Every time I just think did you even read that book? Because if you did you missed the entire fracking point.
An Abundance of Katherines is about this kid named Colin who was a child prodigy and he’s terribly worried he’ll never live up to his potential. At the start of the book, he says things like “What is the point of being alive if you don’t at least try to do something remarkable.” Then there’s a road trip, a mathematical formula about break ups and some stuff about a tampon factory and Colin learns to chill the frack down and stop saying such stupid shit. That’s the Cliff Notes version but you get the idea. It’s funny, fun to read and like I said, it’s not going to change your life – except for the fact that it sort of changed mine.
I first read An Abundance in the spring of 2012 I was 20, in my third year of Uni and I felt like I was plummeting towards the end of my degree. Oh and about a month earlier I spent four days in hospital and got diagnosed with MS. MS for those of you who don’t know, is what those of us in the business, refer to as a chronic illness. This means it’s the sort of bastard that you have for the rest of your life and you have no way of predicting. It keeps things interesting.
The thing for me when I was first diagnosed was health wise I actually felt much better in months immediately after I found out about it than I had in the year or so before. For me it went like this, I got diagnosed, I read up on the condition and suddenly I understood what had been happening all along (self-knowledge is the bomb). For me, the illness itself wasn’t hard to deal with because I had been dealing with it since I was maybe 16. The thing that was hard the deal with was the total shift in worldview the knowledge of my illness triggered.

This is what a person with an undiagnosed chronic illness looks like.
If you see one give them a hair brush for the love of God.

If you believe yourself to be a healthy 20-year-old when you look into the future you imagine yourself as a healthy 30-year-old. You assume that all the major aspects of the life of that 30-year-old are things you have complete control over. Your job, your house, your love-life - all you have to do is decide how you want these things to be, follow the right path and they will be yours. Once I had this weird, unpredictable life long illness I couldn’t imagine myself as a healthy 30-year-old anymore. I no longer have the luxury of taking my health for granted, this was/is a blow, but what’s worse is the realization that I have very little control over my future at all. I am not living some kind of charmed life, bad things can happen to me and my life does not automatically have to work out how I hope it will. Two and a- bit years on, I find this realization sort of liberating; but in the months after my diagnosis, that’s what kept me up at nights.
Previously my major worry had been what I was going to do after Uni. I had long meetings with my personal tutor to discuss this point where she told me how much potential I had and we pondered over which London art school I might do my MA at. Now I was worried I might never even do an MA. What about my infamous potential? What if I never did anything remarkable?
Enter An Abundance of Katherines with that very same question. What is the value of an unremarkable life? It’s huge. Small, unremarkable lives are maybe some of the happiest and most valuable. They can be some of the most fulfilling and the most important. That’s not to say we shouldn’t still try and do great things, just that if all we end up doing is being happy, then that’s good too.

See - it all worked out fine in the end.
I have a crown now. 

I don’t mean to imply here that I read An Abundance of Katherines and everything was okay – things felt pretty tricky for quite a while after that, but it was an immensely comforting book at the time and it will always mean something to me because of that.
I haven’t moved to London (yet?) but I am doing my MA and living a life altogether better and more complex than anything I could have imagined. Shaped as it is by all the other things I never saw coming. I have learnt my lesson though and just like Colin at the end of the book, I too stopped being the kind of self-indulgent git to lie about worrying about being remarkable. And I didn’t even have to go to a tampon factory to learn my lesson. Win.

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