Paper Towns by John Green

I listed Looking for Alaska as one of my favorite books of last year, and I enjoyed An Abundance of Katherines quite a lot, too. So I was pretty excited about the arrival of Paper Towns on my front step.

Paper Towns is the story of Q and his next-door-neighbor, Margo Roth Spiegelman. After she takes him on a late-night adventure that includes breaking into Sea World, she disappears. Q believes she has left him the clues to find her, but has Margo disappeared, or was she so fed up with her life that she committed suicide?

The phrase “paper towns” refers to copyright traps on maps and unfinished subdivisions, some of which are in the clues that Margo has left behind. I thought the mystery would be the center of the book, but in the end, though the character of Margo is central to the story, Margo herself is an afterthought. Q loves the idea of Margo, Margo’s friends love her spontaneity, and Margo’s parents are fed up with their daughter’s behavior. But nobody knows Margo as a person. The story is about finding Margo and the process of looking at another person for who they really are, not looking at them and seeing what you want to see or seeing some reflection of yourself.

This week’s sermon was on self-control, and the text was from Galatians 5, as read from The Message:

My counsel is this: Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness. For there is a root of sinful self-interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness. These two ways of life are antithetical, so that you cannot live at times one way and at times another way according to how you feel on any given day. Why don’t you choose to be led by the Spirit and so escape the erratic compulsions of a law-dominated existence?

It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.

This isn’t the first time I have warned you, you know. If you use your freedom this way, you will not inherit God’s kingdom.

But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

What an excellent question, and how pertinent to this book (and to the high school experience and beyond). Why don’t I choose to live that way instead of the paranoid loneliness that often surrounds me? Why do I depersonalize people I disagree with? How do I get to that other part, the part with the loyal commitments and the compassion?

I have thought a fair amount recently about knowing and being known. On Friday night I was at a birthday gathering for a coworker, and during the course of the evening, I was invited to two other birthday parties, adopted as a daughter-in-law (I have a mom but not a mother-in-law), and exchanged phone numbers with several new friends. I do not have the gift of being easy and open when it comes to friendships, even if I desperately want to be known. At the same time, I worry that these people will find me a disappointment, that I won’t live up to what they want from me, the reflection of themselves that they think they might see in me (because they couldn’t possibly looking past that and be interested in me as a person).

I have a friend at church who is so open and welcoming. She is one of those people who seems to have a lot of balance in her life, and always remembers to include other people in her plans. I admire her for that, and can see very clearly how she made us feel welcome when we started at our church. For a long time I worried that I wasn’t what she wanted in a friend, because I wasn’t sure how I felt about things she feels passionately about. It took me several years to realize that she didn’t care about those things. She just wanted to be friends. She just wanted me to accept who she was, and she was glad to accept who I was, who I am.

That was a big reason that I enjoyed Paper Towns. This is something teens need to think about. It’s difficult to see other people honestly, and it’s difficult to let yourself be seen honestly. It’s impossible to completely understand someone’s motivations, no matter how well you know someone. I still surprise Mike from time to time, and he still surprises me. We grow and change and need to reassess our views of each other. And that’s what Q needed to realize about Margo. To him, she was an exciting ideal, not a person with thoughts and dreams and hurts and joys. Q’s journey to this realization in Paper Towns is well worth the ride.

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