News‎ > ‎

Review of Matt Haig’s latest book Notes on a Nervous Planet

posted Jun 30, 2018, 10:22 AM by Karen Wetherall   [ updated Jul 2, 2018, 3:29 AM ]

Rory O'Connor's Notes on Matt Haig’s latest book Notes on a Nervous Planet

I was delighted to find Notes on a Nervous Planet (Canongate) on the shelves of WH Smith at Gatwick Airport on Tuesday (a little ahead of 5th July, the scheduled publication date). I am a big fan of Reasons to Stay Alive, Matt Haig’s personal memoir about suicide risk, depression and anxiety.  I was keen to see what Matt would do next with the RTSA follow-up. And I wasn’t disappointed. Here are my notes (see what I did there Jon a NOANP including some brief thoughts that came to mind as I read the book.

I had the pleasure of doing two book festivals with Matt when RTSA was published a couple of years ago. And I remember joking with him at the Cheltenham Literature Festival (where I interviewed him on stage about RTSA) that when I had agreed to interview him I hadn’t yet read his book - and was concerned that it would be another wishy-washy self-help book – which, if true, would have made our gig together a tad tricky! Thankfully it wasn’t; it was eloquent, touching and it really resonated with me, like it did for countless thousands of others.  Indeed, I know of many people who struggle with living daily who have said that RTSA has helped them while in their own tunnels of despair.

On Tuesday, when I got my hands on NOANP, I had a slightly different concern. Would his writing resonate with me again and live up to the promise/delight of RTSA? I am pleased to say that it does – but it is different; in some ways it is a follow-up to RTSA, delivering a personal narrative interweaved with general observations but in other ways it is not, as it goes much further beyond his personal experience than in RTSA, drawing more on research (and other) evidence.  I also felt that it had more of an explicit self-help feel to it.   No bad thing, though. It also covers the challenges of modern life, which other books do, but he does so in an accessible, personal and engaging way.

I read NOANP in one extended sitting today (accompanied by seemingly unending Glaswegian sunshine which I spent the morning and afternoon trying to avoid burning in).  So, what follows are my very immediate reflections (with little editing, so apologies for any typos etc).  Unlike RTSA, NOANP focuses on how “the world is messing with our minds” and offers suggestions on how we can be happier in a chaotic and technologically-driven world.  Climate change, social media, psychology, social comparison, fake news, cosmetic surgery, loneliness, work, phones, the sky and psycho-grams all get a mention.

Like RTSA, Matt draws upon his own experiences of anxiety, panic disorder and depression - and much more besides. His descriptions of his own struggles are beautifully written and emotion-laden; once again conveying the complexity of his, as well as all of our mental health.  Late in the book, the importance of keeping everyday concerns in perspective is brought home to him when his mother undergoes major surgery.

Nobody writes lists better than Matt Haig does.  I wish I could write lists like Matt Haig does.

Even when Matt is writing about something that we already know (e.g., the pros and cons of living in a more connected world, the internet and so on.), he always manages to make me think anew about it – and through his eloquent prose, I cannot help but reconsider how it affects my life and my world. 

Two observations from NOANP:

Distraction isn’t a long-term solution.

Life is not a tequila to be slammed.

A personal observation: Everyone should read Bonjour Tristesse (by Francoise Sagan) which is mentioned a couple of times in NOANP. I read it for A-Level French and I can still remember being transfixed by it: I learned about sadness and the appreciation of living from reading it. It was clearly also a big hit with Matt!

As the title of the book suggests, some of chapters are brief, personal observations – notes – and others are much longer, integrating concerns about the world with evidence. I really liked the mix as I did in RTSA. I especially like the imagery that some of the brief chapters evoke (e.g., ‘A note from the beach’, ‘Maybe’). Similar to RTSA, each chapter has a standalone message, as well as contributing to the broader narrative of navigating a messy world in hopefully a safer and more meaningful way.  There is something for all of us in the book.

Best phrase: “invisible cyclone” to describe a panic attack.

Best chapter title: “The mannequins who inflict pain” (or “I am what I am what I am”).

Good advice: “Never let a stranger’s negative opinion of you become your own negative opinion of you.” p.229

Made me smile: Matt describing when his wife Andrea chastises him for being on the internet: “She held up her palm. ‘Okay. I don’t want the TED talk.’” p.98.

NOANP in 8 words: stimulating, compassionate, thoughtful, engaging, human, hope, perspective, wellbeing 

Key messages for me from NOANP: 

1   Uncertainty is a certainty and that’s okay. 

2   Be in the now, not yesterday or tomorrow 

Conclusion: I always learn and feel more from reading Matt Haig. And it makes me a better person. Bookshops are a much better place as a result of his work. If RTSA was for you, then so is NOANP. So go buy it.

 Rory O’Connor

 30th June 2018