John Green: The nerd's guide to learning everything online (1)
This is a map of New York State that was made in 1937 by the General Drafting Company.
It's an extremely famous map among cartography nerds, because down here at the bottom of the Catskill Mountains, there is a little town called Roscoe -- actually, this will go easier if I just put it up here -- There's Roscoe, and then right above Roscoe is Rockland, New York, and then right above that is the tiny town of Agloe, New York. Agloe, New York, is very famous to cartographers, because it's a paper town.
It's also known as a copyright trap. Mapmakers -- because my map of New York and your map of New York are going to look very similar, on account of the shape of New York -- often, mapmakers will insert fake places onto their maps, in order to protect their copyright. Because then, if my fake place shows up on your map, I can be well and truly sure that you have robbed me. Agloe is a scrabblization of the initials of the two guys who made this map, Ernest Alpers and Otto [G.] Lindberg, and they released this map in 1937. Decades later, Rand McNally releases a map with Agloe, New York, on it, at the same exact intersection of two dirt roads in the middle of nowhere. Well, you can imagine the delight over at General Drafting. They immediately call Rand McNally, and they say, "We've caught you! We made Agloe, New York, up. It is a fake place. It's a paper town. We're going to sue your pants off!" And Rand McNally says, "No, no, no, no, Agloe is real." Because people kept going to that intersection of two dirt roads - (Laughter) in the middle of nowhere, expecting there to be a place called Agloe -- someone built a place called Agloe, New York. (Laughter)
It had a gas station, a general store, two houses at its peak.
And this is of course a completely irresistible metaphor to a novelist, because we would all like to believe that the stuff that we write down on paper can change the actual world in which we're actually living, which is why my third book is called "Paper Towns".
But what interests me ultimately more than the medium in which this happened, is the phenomenon itself.
It's easy enough to say that the world shapes our maps of the world, right? Like the overall shape of the world is obviously going to affect our maps. But what I find a lot more interesting is the way that the manner in which we map the world changes the world. Because the world would truly be a different place if North were down. And the world would be a truly different place if Alaska and Russia weren't on opposite sides of the map. And the world would be a different place if we projected Europe to show it in its actual size. The world is changed by our maps of the world. The way that we choose -- sort of, our personal cartographic enterprise, also shapes the map of our lives, and that in turn shapes our lives. I believe that what we map changes the life we lead.
And I don't mean that in some, like, secret-y Oprah's Angels network, like, you-can-think-your-way- out-of-cancer sense. But I do believe that while maps don't show you where you will go in your life, they show you where you might go. You very rarely go to a place that isn't on your personal map. So I was a really terrible student when I was a kid.
My GPA was consistently in the low 2s. And I think the reason that I was such a terrible student is that I felt like education was just a series of hurdles that had been erected before me, and I had to jump over in order to achieve adulthood. And I didn't really want to jump over these hurdles, because they seemed completely arbitrary, so I often wouldn't, and then people would threaten me, you know, they'd threaten me with this "going on [my] permanent record," or "You'll never get a good job." I didn't want a good job! As far as I could tell at eleven or twelve years old, like, people with good jobs woke up very early in the morning, (Laughter) and the men who had good jobs, one of the first things they did was tie a strangulation item of clothing around their necks. They literally put nooses on themselves, and then they went off to their jobs, whatever they were. That's not a recipe for a happy life. These people -- in my, symbol-obsessed, twelve year-old imagination -- these people who are strangling themselves as one of the first things they do each morning, they can't possibly be happy. Why would I want to jump over all of these hurdles and have that be the end? That's a terrible end! And then, when I was in tenth grade, I went to this school, Indian Springs School, a small boarding school, outside of Birmingham, Alabama.
And all at once I became a learner. And I became a learner, because I found myself in a community of learners. I found myself surrounded by people who celebrated intellectualism and engagement, and who thought that my ironic oh-so-cool disengagement wasn't clever, or funny, but, like, it was a simple and unspectacular response to very complicated and compelling problems. And so I started to learn, because learning was cool. I learned that some infinite sets are bigger than other infinite sets, and I learned that iambic pentameter is and why it sounds so good to human ears. I learned that the Civil War was a nationalizing conflict, I learned some physics, I learned that correlation shouldn't be confused with causation -- all of these things, by the way, enriched my life on a literally daily basis. And it's true that I don't use most of them for my "job," but that's not what it's about for me. It's about cartography. What is the process of cartography?
It's, you know, sailing upon some land, and thinking, "I think I'll draw that bit of land," and then wondering, "Maybe there's some more land to draw." And that's when learning really began for me. It's true that I had teachers that didn't give up on me, and I was very fortunate to have those teachers, because I often gave them cause to think there was no reason to invest in me. But a lot of the learning that I did in high school wasn't about what happened inside the classroom, it was about what happened outside of the classroom. For instance, I can tell you that "There's a certain Slant of light, Winter Afternoons -- That oppresses, like the Heft Of Cathedral Tunes --" not because I memorized Emily Dickinson in school when I was in high school, but because there was a girl when I was in high school, and her name was Amanda, and I had a crush on her, and she liked Emily Dickinson poetry. The reason I can tell you what opportunity cost is, is because one day when I was playing Super Mario Kart on my couch, my friend Emmet walked in, and he said, "How long have you been playing Super Mario Kart?" And I said, "I don't know, like, six hours?" and he said, "Do you realize that if you'd worked at Baskin-Robbins those six hours, you could have made 30 dollars, so in some ways, you just paid thirty dollars to play Super Mario Kart." And I was, like, "I'll take that deal. (Laughter)
But I learned what opportunity cost is.
And along the way, the map of my life got better.
It got bigger; it contained more places. There were more things that might happen, more futures I might have. It wasn't a formal, organized learning process, and I'm happy to admit that. It was spotty, it was inconsistent, there was a lot I didn't know. I might know, you know, Cantor's idea that some infinite sets are larger than other infinite sets, but I didn't really understand the calculus behind that idea. I might know the idea of opportunity cost, but I didn't know the law of diminishing returns. But the great thing about imagining learning as cartography, instead of imagining it as arbitrary hurdles that you have to jump over, is that you see a bit of coastline, and that makes you want to see more. And so now I do know at least some of the calculus that underlies all of that stuff. So, I had one learning community in high school, then I went to another for college, and then I went to another, when I started working at a magazine called "Booklist," where I was an assistant, surrounded by astonishingly well-read people.
And then I wrote a book. And like all authors dream of doing, I promptly quit my job. (Laughter)
And for the first time since high school, I found myself without a learning community, and it was miserable.
I hated it. I read many, many books during this two-year period. I read books about Stalin, and books about how the Uzbek people came to identify as Muslims, and I read books about how to make atomic bombs, but it just felt like I was creating my own hurdles, and then jumping over them myself, instead of feeling the excitement of being part of a community of learners, a community of people who are engaged together in the cartographic enterprise of trying to better understand and map the world around us.