Fifteen years later, Looking for Alaska by John Green is just as relevant—or even more so—than the day it was published. I know that I fell in love with it the first time I read it, and every time I’ve read the book since, I love it even more. I love it so much that I chose to write about it for the senior thesis for my Bachelor’s degree. Every time I read it, the themes and ideas in its pages resonate with me even more.
Looking for Alaska is a book that has often made headlines due to the abundance of drinking, smoking, swearing, and sex, which has made it one of the most banned books of this century. Parents don’t want their teenagers to read about teens drinking vodka in the woods or having oral sex for the first time, probably because they believe it will encourage that kind of behavior. They don’t trust that their kids are smart enough to read past that, to see the story for what it’s really saying.
The story this book tells is not a unique one. John Green never claimed to be an author who writes original plotlines (or really plotlines at all). It’s the essential high school story: a boy, Miles, who has spent his whole life keeping to himself, reading the famous words of dead people and wishing he could live an extraordinary life, but never brave enough to try to do something about it. At the beginning of the book, he decides to finally make his move, moving several states away to go to boarding school. At the school, he finds what he was looking for. He makes good friends and meets a beautiful girl, and at their encouragement, he starts to drink, smoke, play pranks, and live like a normal high schooler. It’s a good, classic coming-of-age story, full of quotes like, “I go to seek a Great Perhaps” or “If people were rain, I was a drizzle and she was a hurricane” that perfectly encapsulate Miles’ wish for a more interesting life and his own feelings of inadequacy when faced with a stunning, inexplicable girl like Alaska. Miles speaks to that desire deep down inside each of us (each of us wallflowers, anyway) to break out of our shells and really experience life.
But while this coming-of-age story is intensely relatable and part of what makes this book so great, it’s the deeper theme that hits you at the end of the story, the point the novel has been building towards, that makes me ponder this book for days, weeks, on end. At the end of the novel, Miles writes a note as a way of distilling and explaining what he’s realized, and in this note, he talks a lot about forgiveness. Throughout the novel, the main characters all struggle with the question “how will we get out of this labyrinth of suffering?” Alaska, still grieving the death of her mother, which she feels responsible for, longs to escape the labyrinth. After she dies halfway through the book, Miles also struggles, desperate to find out what really happened to her and also feeling guilty, like she died because he and his friends screwed up, but still angry at Alaska for being selfish in her last moments. Finally at the end, he’s come to some clarity. He writes:
“I forgive her [Alaska] for forgetting me and the Colonel and everyone but herself and her mom in those last moments she spent as a person. I know now that she forgives me for being dumb and scared and doing the dumb and scared thing. I know she forgives me, just as her mother forgives her… I know she forgives me, just as I forgive her.”
One popular quote from the book that likes to float around Goodreads and Pinterest is “the only way out of the labyrinth of suffering is to forgive.” This quote never actually appears in the novel, but it perfectly sums up what the novel is saying. Alaska suffered for so long because she couldn’t forgive herself for her mother’s death. Miles suffered because he couldn’t forgive himself or his friends for what happened to Alaska, and he couldn’t forgive her for leaving him. As long as they held onto all of those feelings, they could only keep suffering.
I think this book is only becoming more relevant because there is so little forgiveness in our culture today. Once someone wrongs us, either individually or as a society, we immediately write them off. They’re dead to us, and we never want to hear from or speak to them again. We hold onto our anger, even though it makes us unhappy, and I think it’s because we misunderstand forgiveness. Forgiveness doesn’t have to mean what the person did to you is okay. Forgiveness doesn’t have to mean you let them back into your life. But forgiveness allows you both to close those wounds and move on. Forgiveness allows you to escape the labyrinth of suffering and heal.
Looking for Alaska is the book that taught me about forgiveness and has been teaching teenagers (and adults) about forgiveness for the past fifteen years. I hope that this book will become a classic (I think it will) and that as our world becomes more and more complicated, readers will keep reading it and continue to be grounded and inspired by this message of forgiveness.