“Notes On A Nervous Planet” by Matt Haig (2018)

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“I was stressed out.”

The world is moving ever faster and sometimes it feels like a struggle just to hold on. With the constant bombardment of adverts, breaking news, tweets, social media updates and fear-mongering by anyone with Internet access, it’s no wonder that rates of anxiety, depression and mental malaise seem to have risen so sharply. Fortunately, there are people who are trying to make sense of it all and give us a way to speak out about it. Matt Haig is one of the best.

A couple of years ago, Haig published Reasons to Stay Alive, a frank and moving book about his own struggles with anxiety, panic attacks and suicide. Its success was instant and profound. People across the world thanked him for his words and putting to paper the feelings they’d been struggling to articulate, as well as giving his own tips on how to improve things – or rather, showing us how he did it. He is at pains to insist he isn’t a psychological expert by any means, and his advice is merely based on things he has experienced, but sometimes that’s just a good start.

Notes on a Nervous Planet is the wonderful sequel, this time focusing more on the speed of progress in the world, how the world seems to be working to keep us miserable and anxious (happy people don’t spend money), and how best to cope with things like Twitter and Instagram. We can all make changes to our lives that might alleviate some of the worst problems.

The advice is often simple, or at least appears so: charge your mobile phone outside of your bedroom; don’t stay on Twitter if you’re not enjoying it anymore; read more often; do yoga; go outside more often. Nonetheless, I feel that it all helps. As someone who has had his own issues with anxiety and depression in recent years, it was refreshing to read via Haig’s wonderful prose that I’m not alone. It’s also important to have people talking about these things, as the more we talk about mental health, the more likely the attached stigma will drop away. It’s particularly important, I feel, to have a man talk about it. I appreciate that we live in a world that seems to assume “straight, white male” is the default and people are bored to listening to them, but generally men are told not to express their feelings and to “be strong” all the time. Robert Webb covered this in his memoirs too. This stuff needs to be said – everyone is allowed to cry, and everyone is allowed to feel.

Haig’s book is short but full of profound and charming, lyrical sentences, as well as common sense advice. It’s also raw in places, as he recounts panic attacks and times when he thought he couldn’t carry on. I, for one, am enormously pleased he has, as he’s written some of my favourite books in recent years, including The Humans and How To Stop Time.

Brilliant, beautiful, wise, and important.

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“Jonathan Livingston Seagull” by Richard Bach (1979)

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“It was morning, and the new sun sparkled gold across the ripples of a gentle sea.”

Many books like to show us the world from the point of view of an animal. Obviously there’s Animal Farm, or The Animals of Farthing Wood, The Book of Chameleons by José Eduardo Agualusa that gives a lizard-eye view of the world, or The Last Family in England from Matt Haig which shows us life through the eyes of a pet dog. In this instance, the book appears to have more in common with the likes of Br’er Rabbit in that it’s a fable intent on teaching us something about ourselves through the actions of a seagull.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull isn’t like the other gulls in the Flock. While they’re focused on finding food and surviving, Jonathan is far more interested in the act of flying, spending all his time studying the art and learning how to become the best flyer he can. His actions upset the Elders, however, and he becomes an Outcast for going against the societal conventions and so leaves to better practice his skills.

While away, however, he finds that perhaps he isn’t so alone as he thought. There are others he can learn from, other gulls who have been cast out of their flocks for their love of flying. Jonathan can now be free, and help the next generation of outcasts perfect their abilities. This edition of the book also comes with the rediscovered “Part Four”, which sees Jonathan’s legacy live on as time passes and he becomes something of a mythological figure to the gulls, rather than something more tangible.

It’s a short read, but beautiful in its brevity. The main takeaway is about self-perfection, and how we don’t have to follow the crowd. Those that go their own way and do things differently often achieve greatness unimagined by the others. There is much to learn here about individuality, creativity and passion. The fourth part, which was only published for the first time in 2013, has distinct parallels to organised religion and questions its nature. Bach was inspired to finish it after surviving a car crash and seeing in it truths he’d written years before without knowing they would become relevant.

I didn’t really know what I was expecting from this book, but I got more from it than I could ever have imagined. It’s the kind of book that’s so full of gorgeous lines that I could paper my bedroom in them. I’ll limit myself to just one, here:

“Don’t believe what your eyes are telling you. All they show is limitation. Look with your understanding. Find out what you already know and you will see the way to fly.”