Book Review: Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig
I have the propensity to be anxious about most things – electrical goods, being late, saying no, upsetting people, gas hobs, plug sockets, disease, forgetting things – so a book titled Notes on a Nervous Planet calls to me like a gin & tonic on a hot day.
Since the release of his 2015 memoir Reasons to Stay Alive, novelist and journalist Matt Haig has become the (probably slightly reluctant) poster-man for anxiety disorders and mental health awareness. Reasons to Stay Alive made me blub like a Nan backstage at an X Factor audition. I read it in two sittings – in the bath (where I had to keep topping up the warm water) and on my bed in my dressing gown. I lost a day but I gained something far more valuable. I’d just overcome a crippling bout of anxiety, had been diagnosed with OCD and had recently decided to return to ‘normal’ life – work, friends, responsibility. Reading the book was cathartic and, judging by the slew of reviews and comments on social media, a lot of people felt the same release.
One thing I love about Haig’s writing is his ability to make people feel things. When he talks about the small pleasures of life such being outside, listening to the rain, hanging out with loved ones and listening to music, it evokes the same feeling in me and I’m reminded of all the things I love. Not many writers have this magical ability. With his words, Haig makes me give a shit – not just about myself but for the world around me.
Weirdly, and not to sound like a total stalker, I feel like I’ve gone on a journey with Haig. While reading Reasons to Stay Alive I needed the solidarity. I needed stories of other people going through similar things like I needed air. I needed to know that I wasn’t a crazy person because I had panic attacks in supermarkets or ran away from clothes shops when people started aggressively perusing the sale rack. When I started to feel well, I began reading about anxiety and mental health issues to better understand my illness. But these books were mostly scientific (except for Eleanor Morgan’s brilliant Anxiety for Beginners) and, although the advice was similar – avoid stimulants and destructive behaviour (booze, fags, drugs, coffee), get more sleep, don’t work in a job that makes you miserable, get outside, exercise – there’s something deeply compelling about hearing it from someone more, well, human. Someone fallible, someone who doesn’t claim to have all the answers and often doesn’t take his own advice (particularly when it comes to Twitter).
Unlike Reasons to Stay Alive, Notes on a Nervous Planet is more of a ‘how to’ guide and explores a wide variety of issues influencing both our individual and collective psyche. In short, it asks: why the hell are we all so nervous? Why aren’t we talking/doing something about it? And how do we even do this?
Haig is convinced that modern life is damaging our mental health, and I whole-heartedly agree. Let’s face it, the digital age is making us more anxious than we’ve ever been. In his book, Haig cites our inability to switch off from 24-hour news, smartphones, social media and even work as having a severe impact on our mental well-being. Human beings have never seen such a dramatic shift in “progress” and, quite frankly, we’re starting to freak out. “The disorder isn’t individual,” says Haig. “It is social. It is global.” It’s the Kardashians selling weight-loss lollypops on Instagram, the terrifying part Facebook plays in political campaigns and the constant ping of work emails to our mobile phones.
Notes on a Nervous Planet is written in short, neat chapters and often jumps from subject to subject, a style that Haig addresses in the book. And while I’ve read early reviews comparing the text to the product of an overactive mind, I think it’s brilliant and mirrors his message perfectly. This is how we are. Unable to focus or be present, jumping from one worry to the next. “I am trying to write about the messiness of the world and the messiness of minds by writing a deliberately messy book,” Haig says.
So, this book has already been criticised and I reckon that people who dismiss those willing to talk about these issues will undoubtedly disregard its message. But screw them.
I don’t want to say this book is ‘brave’ because being branded thus for discussing mental health, and the obvious impact our rapidly changing world is having on society, implies that they are doing something they shouldn’t be – or something terrifying. Isn’t that worrying anyone? It worries me. But, like I said, most things do.
Notes on a Nervous Planet is a witty, clever, human book about extremely important things. It is serious food for thought, particularly when it comes to the impact of social media on our happiness. This book reminds me that I’m human, not a robot, urges me not to “hate-follow” people on social media and to remove things from my life that make me feel bad. As Haig says, “Everything we need is right here. Everything we have is enough.”
Notes on a Nervous Planet is published by Canongate and available to buy now.
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Supported by funding from @HeritageFundUK, Betty’s Back! will explore James’s life and works in the context of the 1920s, when the portrait was painted, and will also reveal artwork by Betty Durden Green for the first time.