The following is the full transcript of author John Green’s TEDx Talk: The Paper Town Academy at TEDxIndianapolis.
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John Green – Author
So, 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. 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, map makers 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 G. Alpers and Otto 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 called 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 in the middle of nowhere, expecting there to be a place called Agloe, someone built a place called Agloe, New York. 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 to, 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, secrecy 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 11 or 12 years old, like, people with good jobs woke up very early in the morning, 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, 12-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 10th 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 what 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.