Book Review: ‘A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor’ Is A Hopeful Critique of How We Live Now

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Image courtesy Dutton Books.

It seems every day that there are new threats to our privacy and security that we need to be aware of, Trojan horses hiding in attractive packaging. Love watching Tik Toks? Well, the company that owns the app could be stealing all your data. Spend a lot of time on Facebook? They know everything about you, even things you thought were off-limits, and they will use that knowledge to sell you stuff. Post cute selfies on Instagram? Facial recognition technology will now be able to track you as you move through life unawares. Plenty of art has been made that questions our dependence on technology, with shows like Black Mirror or films like Ex Machina interrogating our near-worship of tech founders and the Internet famous. These films, TV shows, and books tend to be bleak, sounding a “heed this warning or else!” alarm bell.

Hank Green has the same concerns, but instead of lamenting what’s been lost in a nostalgic dystopian guilt trip, he chooses to examine these themes more closely and find out what has us searching for a connection online. He takes it as a given that social media is here to stay, that it clearly gives us something we are searching for and fulfills a primal need. Why do we seek Internet fame? Why is it a universal human impulse to want to be known, even for a brief moment, and even if it costs us everything (including things we don’t even know we have until they are taken from us)? And what is the danger in giving near-unlimited power to a social media-savvy few? I’ve been a fan of Green’s sharp, nuanced takes on the world for years now, and his perspective has only become more essential as he’s shifted to the medium of books as well as videos. Green has clearly grappled with these questions for years as one of the earliest YouTube creators to find mainstream success and recognition, but the way he presents his arguments in both his first book An Absolutely Remarkable Thing and this sequel A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor are entertaining, engaging, and most importantly, effective.

A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor begins where the first left off: April May is presumed dead after the events of the first novel, and her friends are left to grapple with a new world in the wake of the Carls’ sudden appearance and just-as-sudden disappearance. The narration shifts between several of these friends unlike the first novel, which was told from April’s point of view. Green also includes small snippets of outside perspectives like podcasts or articles from within the world of the story to give us context, a choice I thoroughly enjoyed. I won’t say much about the plot itself, since it is just too good to spoil, but I will say that anyone looking for answers after reading the first novel will come away more than satisfied with the way A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor ties it all together.

One of the best parts about Green’s writing for me has always been how strong his voice is as an author. He has big ideas and executes them well, but he’s also entertaining to read. His snarky asides are hilarious and give the book a light feel despite its heavy themes. Some creators make doom-and-gloom points about technology in books so laden with symbolism and IMPORTANCE that they are just a slog to read, ultimately diminishing the power of their message while simultaneously making you want to live in a cave for the rest of your life. Green instead crafts an entertaining and witty story whose themes stay with you long after you’ve finished reading. Like the best sci-fi novels, the story enhances the themes it explores instead of using the story as simply a vehicle for the author’s point of view. Green has one-line observations in this novel that somehow condense entire complex ideas into easily digestible bits, like this one:

You are a story that you tell yourself, and even if it is not always accurate, it is who you are, and that is very important to you.

The aspect of A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor that struck me the most is just how hopeful it is. Green understands that the deck is stacked against humanity when it comes to the slow encroachment of menacing (or at the very least neutral) aspects of technology and the weaponization of social media as a tool to further the interests of corporations and people with unchecked power. This power is often given to them by us, based on our own ideas of who is worthy and important to listen to. One of his best lines in the novel deals with this directly:

We build narratives of genius and exceptionality among the people who have power, and they are often exceptional, but no more exceptional than hundreds of thousands of others. In your system, power concentrates naturally. And so the thing that is most exceptional about a powerful person is almost always their power.

But Green doesn’t despair, throw up his hands, and say “you’re all doomed, get used to your new robot overlords knowing everything about you!” He has an earnest, genuine belief in humanity that shines through every paragraph of this novel. He believes in the power we have as a collective, even if we don’t always realize we have it.

A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor was written well before the coronavirus pandemic, but I would be remiss if I didn’t note just how startlingly relevant it has become in its wake. The issues Green grapples within theory in the novel are now issues that we are confronting in real life on a daily basis. And yet, reading this book felt like a page-turning escape for me. I laughed out loud, I held my breath in suspense, and I dog-eared pages with quotes that spoke to me. It felt so good to lose myself in the world of the novel, even if that world is uncomfortably close to our own reality in many ways. I cannot recommend A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor enough, and if you haven’t read An Absolutely Remarkable Thing yet, I recommend them both. I’ll leave you with this:

We all want to be in the room where it happens, we want to be part of the things that matter to us, but no two people have the exact same collection of things that matter. Nowadays, I don’t so much want to be in the room where it happens, but I do really want to help other people choose the right rooms, and help them realize that they really are a part of things that matter. Because when we feel like none of the rooms we are in matter, that’s when we’re really lost.

A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor is available now wherever books are sold (might I recommend your local indie bookstore?). Need a refresher on the plot of the first novel? Watch Green’s hilarious recap (in April’s voice) below!

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By Jules
I am a nurse and dedicated nerd from Boston, MA. When I'm not at work, I'm rewatching old favorites like Supernatural or discovering my new obsessions (too many to count!). When not fangirling, I can be found reading, writing, or listening to a true crime podcast. You can find me on Twitter @juleswritesblog for more nerdy nonsense.
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