Matt Haig’s new book offers advice on how to stay sane in a mad world

Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig

‘I am keenly aware that the oft-used approach of pointing out a list of advantages of modern life, such as health and education and average income, does not help. It is like a wagging finger telling a depressed person to count her blessings because no one has died. This book seeks to recognise that what we feel is just as important as what we have. That mental wellbeing counts as much as physical wellbeing – indeed, that it is part of physical wellbeing. And that, on these terms, something is going wrong.’

Rates of stress and anxiety are rising. A fast, nervous planet is creating fast and nervous lives. We are more connected, yet feel more alone. And we are encouraged to worry about everything from world politics to our body mass index. How can we stay sane on a planet that makes us mad? How do we stay human in a technological world? How do we feel happy when we are encouraged to be anxious? After experiencing years of anxiety and panic attacks, these questions became urgent matters of life and death for Matt Haig. And he began to look for the link between what he felt and the world around him.

In 2015 Matt Haig released his bestselling Reasons to Stay Alive, a fantastically honest account of his experience with mental ill health. Notes on a Nervous Planet is a kind of follow-up, though it focuses less on Haig as an individual and more on society at large.

Haig takes on some big, scary subjects here, from how long it will take for our jobs to be taken over by robots, to the despair and anxiety created by 24/7 news. In fact, the first few chapters are so full of doom and gloom you might be tempted to put the book down. But in amongst Haig’s damning takedowns of everything from shopping centres to magazines, there are bright flashes of hope, offering a kind of guidebook on how to stay sane when 21st century life is getting you down. Sections on why you should be glad you’re not a robot and why really no one cares about what your face looks like but you, are both funny and reassuring.

The format of the book makes it very accessible and easy to read, as all the chapters are very short. The succinct essays and insightful lists make it the perfect book to dip in and out of, and to come back to time and time again.

Haig doesn’t set out any perfect solutions on how to change the world or slow the inevitable march of time towards ever smarter technology. Instead he offers easy-to-follow snippets of advice to help you feel less alone and better able to cope with the parts of modern life that might be getting you down.

This book is for anyone who has ever scrolled through Instagram and felt depressed because their lives aren’t like the perfectly framed and filtered images on the screen. It’s for anyone who has ever looked in a mirror and hated what they saw. It’s for anyone who has ever been made to feel like a cog in a machine in their workplace, rather than an actual individual. It’s for anyone looking for a little bit of hope in a world that often seems as though it’s going mad.

Many thanks to Canongate for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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Matt Haig’s new novel is sure to leave a smile on your face

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

‘I am old. That is the first thing to tell you. The thing you are least likely to believe. If you saw me you would probably think I was about forty, but you would be very wrong.’

Tom Hazard may look like an ordinary 41-year-old, but owing to a rare condition, he’s been alive for centuries. From Elizabeth England to Jazz Age Paris, from New York to the South Seas, Tom has seen a lot, and now craves an ordinary life. Always changing his identity to stay alive, Tom has the perfect cover – working as a history teacher at a London comprehensive. The only thing he must not do is fall in love.

Matt Haig had a tough act to follow after the phenomenal success of last year’s part-biography, part-self-help-book Reasons to Stay Alive. It was one of my favourite books of 2016, and one I have dipped in and out of repeatedly since buying it. So I was prepared to love How to Stop Time. Although it had its flaws, Haig has continued his winning formula of crafting believable, hopeful stories that leave the reader with a smile on their face.

Let’s get the flaws out of the way first. The premise is interesting but it’s been done before and Haig stumbles further into cliché by having his protagonist, Tom, meet various real life people along the way; he is hired by Shakespeare and sails the seas with Captain Cook, among others.

One of the things I love about Haig’s writing is the hope. His books are full of darkness but among all the shadows there are wonderful moments of hope and joy. There is hope in How to Stop Time, but it takes a while to get there and it becomes quite taxing to follow a character who spends so much time mourning the past.

However, there was a lot I enjoyed about this novel. There are moments of piercing insight that make you pause and put down the book as you contemplate their genius. Haig has always found a way to interpret the messy, confusing business of being human with language that is simple yet astoundingly perceptive. He understands people, and creates his characters in an honest and believable way.

With Tom having been alive for such a long time, he finds he is losing himself in the grand scheme of things, feeling smaller and smaller against the backdrop of the ever-rolling wheel of history. This book charts his journey to accepting that there is nothing he can do about the progression of time; he can only try to make the most of it, and lose himself in the pleasure of a moment.

Tom is also a member of the Albatross Society (so named because albatrosses were believed to live for a long time). The Society is formed of people like Tom and its purpose is to prevent ordinary humans, or ‘mayflies’, from finding out that there are people who can live to be 800-years-old. The Society added a much-needed thriller element to the story, with the increasing threat of the Society’s founder, Hendrich, hanging over Tom as the story hurries along to an exciting and tense ending.

Although it’s fairly obvious what’s going to happen at the end of the book, it still leaves you with a feeling of lightness, a desire to go out and live life and make the most of it all. Despite its flaws, it is life-affirming stuff and guaranteed to leave a spring in your step.

Many thanks to Canongate for sending a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.