Let’s get the aesthetics over with first: the jacket cover is cool, a space-sky with planets in a rainbow orbit. The hard cover, under said jacket, is beautiful, a blended prism of rainbow colours. This is not a severe lesson in womanning up and getting over oneself, Lord knows there’s enough of that about. Instead, Matt Haig’s Notes on a Nervous Planet (Notes from here on in) offers gentle guidance on how to keep your head when the world around you seems to be losing it’s.
Following on from Reasons to Stay Alive, where Haig spoke candidly about his own anxiety, depression and suicide attempt, we now, instead of having reasons to live, can learn how to live. It feels like quite a revelation for a man to speak so openly and honestly about mental health, and since the publication of Reasons in 2015, many other high-profile men have begun to discuss their own struggles, which, with reports that the toxic masculinity culture that leads to shame in sharing or displaying emotions is fuelling rising suicide rates in young men, can only be a positive thing. Haig uses Notes to address the stigma of mental ill health, and the language used which can add to this, for example “confessing” to mental illness. Don’t confess, says Haig, just tell people. There is also much emphasis on social media/phone addiction, and the inability to switch off, which the author himself struggles to do, as he jokingly alludes to in the introduction to this book:
“The aim of this book isn’t to say that everything is a disaster and we’re all screwed, because we already have Twitter for that.”
Haig berates the irony of media headlines about rising anxiety that only serve to make the reader anxious. The main cause of that anxiousness, he argues, is the rate at which we are now forced to think and act. Life is ever-changing, and fast-moving, thanks to: “Newspapers. Telescopes. The first piano. Sewing Machines. Morphine. Refrigerators. Rechargeable batteries. Telephones. Cars. Aeroplanes. Ballpoint pens. Jazz. Quiz shows. Coca-Cola.” My heart is racing as I read the page-long list, and I can in fact feel that speed of life.
Notes is a book to be dipped in and out of, when required. Often written in list format (“How to own a smartphone and still be a functioning human being”, anyone?), the short passages are ideal for times when concentration is not at its best, or when small nuggets of support are required. Practical advice is right up my street: “Fiction is freedom”. Books give you space of mind to regroup, and help you connect. Quite simply, Haig tells us, “reading is love in action”. I doubt I will come across a more perfectly written line this year.
There is nothing particularly groundbreaking about Haig’s way of thinking, or his guidelines for staying calm; Notes serves as more of a reminder for the times when sense leaves you and throws your mind to the wolves. Like the post-it stuck to your mirror, your laptop, your fridge, that tells you to breathe. Sometimes, though, that’s all you need – just the reassurance that someone else has been here before you, and is still here, still coping, still going. Although no doubt appealing largely to a targeted audience, this is a book for everyone, whether in good mental health or not – it’s the book you didn’t know you needed, but will no doubt be thankful for when the odd cloud fleetingly obscures your vision. Notes on a Nervous Planet is the comforting arm around your shoulder that tells you this too shall pass.
PS: Next week I head off to the remote highlands for a few days’ break, now inspired to attempt Haig’s advice to switch off my phone and revel in the lack of wifi and signal. Perhaps I shall lose myself in books.
Notes on a Nervous Planet was published by Canongate Books, out on 5th July 2018.