Notes on An Nervous Planet, the latest non-fiction from beloved British novelist Matt Haig, is an important book. Important not in the usual sense in this genre (self-development/self-help/personal growth, pick your name) that it makes you feel better after reading it. Feeling better feels good but it may not—often—be actually good for you. It is important because the message is important, and Matt Haig, one of my favorite writers, delivers it in a way only he can, although it may seem a bit off-putting at first encounter or scattered for some readers.
Like Reasons to Stay Alive, his first non-fiction, this is a book about anxiety. But it is more than that. As you may deduce from the title, Matt makes the point that we are living in an age where anxiety almost defines us. Whatever your position in life, no matter your age, your gender, your job, where you live, how much money you make, what you have achieved, there is always something to be anxious about. It doesn’t help that technology is accentuating and even causing more anxiety because we are now always connected. And our relationship with our addition to our smartphones and social media causes a vicious cycle—the more we use them, the more anxious we become, and the more anxious we become, the more we distract ourselves by consuming even more.
The best thing about this book and the way Matt writes it and presents the ideas is that it is always warm and personal. Admittedly a lot of the things discussed (addiction to smartphones, how the news is capitalizing on our anxiety, we already know or at least have heard by reading other articles, other books or watching TED talks. But it is the way he says it:
And it is an effort. It’s so bloody hard. There are days when I’d find it easier to talk North Korea out of its nuclear weapons programme than to talk myself out of checking social media seventeen times before breakfast.
To see the act of learning as something not for its own sake but because of what it will get you reduces the wonder of humanity. We are thinking, feeling, art-making, knowledge-hungry, marvelous animals, who understand ourselves and our world through the act of learning. It is an end in itself.
Yes, he still uses the words “humans” or “homo sapiens” a lot. If there is a common thread to all his books, I would argue that it is his penetrating and often hilarious observation of our behaviors as a species. In The Humans, he views it via the prism of an alien sent to slow down humanity’s advance. In How to Stop Time, he views it via a man who has the secret of having lived more than 300 years. In this book, for the first time he tells it as it is—via his own experience and struggle with anxiety and panic attacks.
If you haven’t read the wonderful novel The Humans yet, do yourself a favor and read it. I discovered Matt by reading it and it has made it to my all-time favorite hall-of-fame books since then. In fact, after finishing this book, I am going to reread it again, I can imagine it will be even better the second time around after reading this one.
Notes on a Nervous Planet
by Matt Haig
Canongate 320pp. Hardback July 2018