Book Review: Notes on a Nervous Planet

It is July. Notes on a Nervous Planet by Matt Haig is the seventh book I have read for my Pandemic Survival Book Club, which concentrates on mental health with a dash of spiritual health. This is by far my favorite of the year and I doubt that it will be unseated. It’s really a delightful book.

Let me just say that I didn’t realize until the last few pages that I was reading a book by the Matt Haig: the author in the LIMELIGHT, on every bookshelf, in every book club, on every top-seller list right now. I have not actually read The Midnight Library yet, but I have been told in ten different ways over the last couple months that I must do it. If it didn’t have such a great title I might rebel for rebellion’s sake (which I also did with Harry Potter and that only delayed my fanaticism). I don’t plan on that, though, I just have so many other titles currently vying for my time. I will read The Midnight Library and queue up with all the other millions who have something to say about it—probably praise in some form. Anyhow, did not make that connection. Had no idea that Midnight Library has an element of Tuesdays with Morrie or (sorry for the comparison, Haig) The Shack to it, nor that Haig had written a few nonfiction books about his own struggles with mental health and his deep and wise thoughts about the modern world and life as a human.

BOOKS (SO FAR) BY MATT HAIG:

(* denotes award-winners/bestsellers.)

  • Father Christmas and Me (children’s novel, Christmas) *
  • The Last Family in England (novel based on Henry IV)
  • Dead Fathers Club (novel based on Hamlet)
  • The Possession of Mr. Cave (novel)
  • Shadow Forest/Samuel Blink and the Forbidden Forest (children’s novel) *
  • The Radleys (vampire novel)
  • The Humans (alien novel)
  • How to Stop Time (time travel novel) *
  • Reasons to Stay Alive (nonfiction) *
  • Notes on a Nervous Planet (nonfiction)
  • The Midnight Library (novel) *
  • The Comfort Book (nonfiction)
  • And other children’s books and nonfiction.

Goodness sakes, he writes the most interesting-sounding books. I believe I’ll have to read more. And even when they don’t sound that interesting, like this one… so good. And we’re back to Notes on a Nervous Planet, which came my way when I was researching books that might help ground a book club mid-Pandemic. Really didn’t think much about it. Began reading it on a mini-getaway with my husband to the hills of the Smokies and the town that inspired Mayberry and The Andy Griffith Show. At first, I was like, what in the world is going on? The book is divided unconventionally into one- to a-few-page chapters. Sometimes a chapter is just a list. The chapters are not really connected to one another in the normal way. There is no plot. There is no decided tone or topic even, really, except that eventually there emerges patterns and a definite strain. The world is on the verge of a nervous breakdown and so are we. Haig, who struggles with anxiety and panic attacks, has some wisdom to bestow about managing yourself in this world, about avoiding the nervous breakdown. He’s not your guru, he’s more like a friend, a partner. He’s down to earth. Funny. Witty. Well-read. Intelligent. Introspective. Outrospective. Observant and enlightened. Has a way of seeing around culture to the heart of the matter. Who wouldn’t want to put their hand in his and walk through all the thoughts of this book?

While Stephen Fry advises us on the cover to “take… twice daily, with or without food,” I couldn’t put it down. I was so much enjoying Haig’s humor and his down-to-earth-yet-transcendent insight, even his little stories, that two a day wasn’t enough for me. I marked this book all up, and will for sure be reading it again. Especially dealing with social media and technology, this is one to talk you off a ledge and help you create a future that is much different than the one you might be currently walking toward blind. On the other hand, you could really read this book slowly, just one micro-chapter at a time, leaving it on your bedstand or in your bathroom or whatever. I found myself wincing, laughing out loud, making people listen as I read parts aloud, referencing it through the day, making notes in the margins, sighing, etc. etc. If you are in need of a reframe—and a pleasant one at that—then I really recommend this book.

Note: Despite all this praise, Haig and I have different worldviews. There were just a few times I had to roll my eyes because we just weren’t in agreement on some major point or another. Most the time, however, this is generic wisdom which is no less poignant or critical for being generic. In fact, it’s perhaps the most relevant doling out of generic wisdom I’ve seen in a long time. There were also so many times I was like “Yes! I know!” because I hadn’t heard anyone else say it. And also “What?!” because he loves to throw in facts and anecdotes that get you thinking in new directions, too.

Recommend. It’s going on my favorites list. Definitely a great Pandemic read if you do nonfiction, self-help, small bites, British humor, whatever.

QUOTES:

“But while choice is infinite, our lives have time spans” (p18).

“The guilt doesn’t always have a cause, though. Sometimes it is just a feeling” (p27).

“The whole of consumerism is based on us wanting the next thing rather than the present thing we already have. This is an almost perfect recipe for unhappiness” (p44).

“’It’s such a weird thing for young people to look at distorted images of things they should be’” (p49, Daisy Ridley).

“Clarins and Clinique have produced a ton of anti-aging creams and yet the people who use them are still going to age. They are just—thanks in part to the billion dollar marketing campaigns aimed at making us ashamed of wrinkles and lines and aging—a bit more worried about it” (p53).

“…having access to information gives you one kind of freedom at the expense of another” (p66).

“We are too aware of numerical time and not aware enough of natural time” (p67).

“We often find ourselves wishing for more hours in the day; but that wouldn’t help anything. The problem, clearly, isn’t that we have a shortage of time. It’s more that we have an overload of everything else” (p70).

“To enjoy life, we might have to stop thinking about what we will never be able to read and watch and say and do, and start to think of how to enjoy the world within our boundaries. To live on a human scale. To focus…” (p76).

“A completely connected world has the potential to go mad, all at once” (p91).

“A billion unseen wonders of everyday life” (p124).

“The trouble is that we simply aren’t made to live our lives in artificial light. We aren’t made for waking to alarm clocks and falling asleep bathed in the blue light of our smartphone. We live in 24-hour societies but not 24-hour bodies. / Something has to give” (p132).

“[Neuroscientist Danial Levitin writes,] ‘Even though we think we’re getting a lot done, ironically, multitasking makes us demonstrably less efficient’” (p148).

“…the mere presence of your smartphone can reduce ‘cognitive capacity’” (p157).

“I believe it’s possible to be a happy mess” (p162).

“The problem is not that the world is a mess, but that we expect it to be otherwise. We are given the idea that we have control” (p162).

“I felt guilty about symptoms I didn’t really see as symptoms of an illness. I saw them as symptoms of me-ness” (p172).

“It helps to know I am just a caveman in a world that has arrived faster than our minds and bodies expect” (p201).

“Being unhappy about your looks is not about your looks” (p206).

“Life isn’t a play. Don’t rehearse yourself” (p210).

“Do something somewhere in the day that isn’t work or duty or the internet” (p210).

“So we have to be careful of our wants and watch that they don’t cause too many holes inside us, otherwise happiness will drip through us like water through a leaky bucket” (p212).

“…it is hard to see the things we may have problems with if everyone has the same problems …. If the whole planet is having a kind of collective breakdown, then unhealthy behavior fits right in …. Normality becomes madness” (p219).

“Money is also luck” (p227).

“…the way we work makes us feel continually behind? Like life is a race that we are losing?” (p227).

“Aim not to get more stuff done. Aim to have less stuff to do” (p228).

“…progress might mean doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road” (p235).

“We might have to unplug ourselves, to find a kind of stripped-back acoustic version of us” (p237).

“…fictional worlds are essential. They can be an escape from reality, yes, but not an escape from truth” (p238).

“To have a chance of lasting happiness, you have to calm down. You have to just be it as well as just do it” (p239).

“We might sometimes do better to replace life as something to be grabbed at, or reached for, with something we already have” (p240).

“Imagine if we could always think of our loved ones the way we think of them when they are in critical condition” (p245).

“The writer might start a story but they need a reader for it to come alive, and it never comes alive the same way twice” (p259).

“Never worry what the cool people think. Head for the warm people” (p265).

“Planning for the future is just planning for another present in which you will be planning for the future” (p268).

“If you have someone or something to love, do it this instant. Love fearlessly” (p268).

“Don’t beat yourself up for being a mess …. Galaxies are drifting all over the place. You’re just in tune with the cosmos” (p270).

“We come complete. Give us some food and drink and shelter, sing us a song, tell us a story, give us people to talk to and care for and fall in love with and there you go. A life” (p271).

“It isn’t addictive because it makes us happy. It is addictive because it doesn’t make us happy” (p271).

“You can’t use all the apps. You can’t be at all the parties. You can’t do the work of 20 people. You can’t be up to speed on all the news. You can’t wear all eleven of your coats at once. You can’t watch every must-see show. You can’t live in two places at once. You can buy more, you can acquire more, you can work more, you can earn more, you can strive more, you can tweet more, you can watch more, you can want more, but as each new buzz diminishes there comes a point where you have to ask yourself: what is all this for? …. Wouldn’t I be happier learning to appreciate what I already have?” (p274).

“You have no understudy” (p275).

“Everything special about humans—our capacity for love and art and friendship and stories and all the rest—is not a product of modern life, it is a product of being a human” (p281).

“’The best thing one can do when it is raining is to let it rain’” (p284, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow).

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