Margo Roth Spiegelman and Other Paper Things

Two years ago, I needed an extra course to take during January term at my undergraduate university, the University of Sioux Falls. J-Term courses are month long courses that are essentially free rides - tuition is included in the fall semester, and the courses are often fun electives not offered at other times throughout the year. For example, this past year I would have loved to return to USF for J-Term, just for the chance to take Dr. Hitchcock's class on the theology of Harry Potter. Harry Potter!

Uh. Anyway.

My senior year, I decided to take a course on banned books in young adult literature, which turned out to be a great decision. My teaching and discussions have returned to the idea of censorship and young adult literature time and again. But that's not been the most lasting effect.

Through the course of the class, I was introduced to young adult author John Green. Green writes young adult literature, and is famous on Youtube for vlogbrothers, a channel he and his brother started after deciding to do text-less communication for a year. I have been following this channel for over a year now, and was excited to hear that John Green himself would be speaking at a bookstore in Austin this Friday (naturally, I'm going).

But here's the catch.

I've never read one of his books.

I knew about his writing through the class because a classmate did a presentation on him. I knew about vlogbrothers because I have awesome friends. But I'd never thought to pick up one of his books and read it. I always thought I should...y'know...later.

But later became now. I thought, if I am going to see this author speak, I might as well start one of his books. Paper Towns came highly recommended and seemed to be his most popular, so, while at the Sioux Falls Barnes and Noble (shortly after I did that blog entry about being home, in fact), I picked up my very own copy of Paper Towns.

And last night, at about midnight, I finished my very own copy of Paper Towns.

Other than breaking through that mental block I've had for the past few weeks that hasn't allowed me to read anything longer than 50 pages, Paper Towns reminded me of why I like books. Authors can get across an interesting, meaningful and important point using metaphors, using narrative - in other words, using techniques that break down barriers we have in our minds.

We are narrative creatures.

We like being able to tell the story of an event, and we make fun of others when they are unable to tell a good story ("And then I found five dollars," anyone?). We interpret things through narrative and metaphor. Like it or not, we interpret everything through the idea of metaphor and simile. It is at the heart of how we talk about God, of how we talk about each other, and how we talk to and about ourselves. John Green himself comments in a video about Catcher in the Rye: "One of the reasons metaphor and simile are so important to books is that they are also important to life."

I could write endless pages of arguments for why you should help the poor (and I do) and to some extent, they are persuasive. But they are not nearly as persuasive as the parables Jesus told to his own disciples and followers in the first century: the Good Samaritan, the rich man and his servants, the Prodigal Son. There's a reason we refer to Christ's time on Earth as "The Gospel Story." The use of the word "story" doesn't mean that it is a fictional account, or that it is purely metaphorical, but merely that it is a narrative (a true one) by which we understand our faith and salvation. C.S. Lewis often referred to the Gospel story as "the one true myth."

Clearly, narrative is important for our lives. One of the reasons I love literature is that it gives us an opportunity to experience that story and see, in a brand new light, the metaphors which guide our lives.

Paper Towns is no exception to that rule. In telling the story of Margo Roth Spiegelman, Green takes us on a journey through understanding and narrative of other people's lives. "Paper towns" refers to, on the surface, a town that exists only on paper - a copyright trap for cartographers used in the beginnings of the 20th century. Such towns still appear on maps today, as Green's author note suggests, considering he found just such a place in my home state of South Dakota. But "Paper Towns" is also a metaphor for the places in which we build our lives: we are fake people, presenting ourselves as others want to see us, putting up this paper front that is solely concerned about the story we are going to tell with our lives, and not about how we truly see each other. As Margo Roth Spiegelman comments when she is explaining the concept of a paper town to our main character and narrator, Quentin: "All the things paper-thin and paper-frail. And the people, too. I've lived here for eighteen years and I have never once in my life come across anyone who cares about anything that matters."

As the book unfolds, we're taken further and further into the metaphor of these paper people in their paper towns, "burning the future to stay warm." We soon realize that Quentin is himself an unreliable narrator (at about the same moment that Quentin himself realizes this). He has been telling stories about himself and about his friends for his whole life, and he realizes that he has misrepresented and mis-imagined a large part of his own narrative, namely in the person of Margo Roth Spiegelman: "Like a metaphor rendered incomprehensible by its ubiquity, there was room enough in what she had left me for endless imaginings, for an infinite set of Margos."

Namely, we create people in the image we want them to be, instead of as they actually are.

A dear friend once told me that a relationship of his ended when he realized he was more in love with the story of the relationship than with the actual person involved. He was, in essence, "burning the future to stay warm;" he was more concerned with the narrative that they were telling than what was actually happening.

The movie (500) Days of Summer picks up on this same theme: Summer is supposed to be an annoying blank canvas of a character because that is how Tom sees her, as our humble narrator. There is no depth to her because he only sees her as he wants to, never as she actually is, and therefore we don't get to experience the real "summer," but instead merely a byproduct of Tom's longing for a narrative to order his life around.

Toward the end of the novel, Quentin goes on a road trip with several of his high school friends, and they play a game in which they create back-stories about the people on the road around them - a metaphor for the novel's major theme of creating people in our own image. Quentin comments: "There are so many people. It is easy to forget how full the world is of people, full to bursting, and each of them imaginable and consistently misimagined."

Think on that last phrase: people imaginable and consistently misimagined.

It is easy to create a narrative for someone you don't know very well, and we are very good at keeping people at a far enough distance that they can create a narrative about us and we about them.

It is easy to love your girl- or boyfriend when you imagine them to be the fulfillment of that longing you've had for a long time.

It is easy to hate your boss when you imagine that they are just a bad person.

It is easy to be indifferent when the person on the street is imagined to be lazy, evil, or fitting into some other narrative.

It is harder when you allow that person to be who they are, and you don't imagine them in a different narrative, but instead in the narrative they live.

Green doesn't stop there, however. Rather than merely misimagining other people, we must take it a step further and literally imagine ourselves into them. It is, as the cliche puts it, walking a mile in another person's shoes. Quentin writes, "But imagining being someone else, or the world being something else, is the only way in. It is the machine that kills fascists."

That last metaphor is not a mistake and not merely a Woody Guthrie reference. Imagining one's self into another person means that we understand them, we make an effort to see them as people with mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters. They become real, and we can no longer desire to control them. We can no longer manipulate them into the narrative of our own lives; instead, they have a narrative, a life of their own, of the kind which we must respect and value, merely because it is a life so like our own.

Once we understand that those around us are people - which is the ongoing struggle throughout Paper Towns - once we get that people are people, children are children and we all have our own narratives, our own stories to tell, and that each of these stories intertwines beautifully to grow into many leaves of grass, all interconnected below the surface by the mere fact of being of the same ilk, of the same root...once we grasp that, we can truly love one another. Violence suddenly becomes absurd. War becomes meaningless. Dictatorships fail. Fascism collapses.

And love reigns over all.


You can find Paper Towns online, in book stores, or at your local library (assuming they haven't banned it).