Notes on a Nervous Planet
“Matt Haig is allowing us a trip inside his mind and the sources of his anxiety. But if you want to come away feeling hopeful about the future, read Reasons to Stay Alive.”
Notes on a Nervous Planet is Matt Haig’s follow up to his bestselling book, Reasons to Stay Alive, but whereas Haig’s book Reasons felt personal, urgent, and groundbreaking, Notes is lacking in focus—unless you consider the entire scope of the modern world a suitable focus.
Matt Haig’s strength as a male writer who is willing to share his interior life is when he gets very, very quiet. “Illness has a lot to teach wellness. But when I am well I forget those things. The trick is to keep hold of that knowledge. To turn recovery into prevention. To live how I live when I am ill, without being ill.”
But the whole of the chapters is not quiet. It is loud, like a CNN live feed with a banner text below the anchors, a blaring headline, and talking heads demanding you pay attention.
The format is simple enough: Short lists, short chapters, and musings on everything from smartphones to social media and work. Haig’s essays are particularly poignant. But the author jumps so erratically from topic to topic, the reader may be left feeling unnerved.
“I am a catastrophizer,” Haig notes. “I don’t simply worry. My worry has real ambition. My worry is limitless. My anxiety—even when I don’t have capital-A Anxiety—is big enough to go anywhere. I have always thought it easy to think of the worst-case scenario and dwell on it.” Passages as personal as this are important because they give us insight to the anxiety ridden mind.
Far less compelling, however, is when Haig attempts to explain the source of the anxiety. “And things are happening too quickly for us to take stock of it all. Certainly quicker than in Tolstoy’s time. All this falling out. All this information. All this technological connection. The world’s brain is a common but fitting metaphor. We are the nerve cells of the world’s brain, transmitting ourselves to other nerve cells. Sending the overload back and forth. Overloaded neurons on a nervous planet. Ready to crash.”
There is no question that the increased pace of change and the pressures caused by frantic social media use is damaging to our mental health. A recent Pew survey found 70% of American teenagers believe that depression and anxiety is a major problem for themselves and their peers. If Notes had reached its potential, Haig’s book could have spoken to the majority of those teenagers and said, “Put your phone down. It’s going to be okay.”
Instead, the book attempts to find all the dragons and slay them in 288 pages—even taking on youth culture with this observation. “Never in human history have so many products and services been available to make ourselves achieve the goal of looking young and attractive.”
Haig is funny and self-effacing, and we love an author who can’t seem to follow his own self-help techniques (or close their laptop), but readers who bonded with Haig over the terror of anxiety, and the unbearable pain of suicidal ideation in Reasons To Stay Alive will likely tire of just how wide a net Notes on a Nervous Planet casts.
“Employment is becoming a dehumanizing process, as if humans existed to serve work, rather than work to serve humans,” Haig writes. But what’s the alternative? Unemployment? Guaranteed homelessness is also anxiety inducing. And even if the reader agrees with Haig that new technology is moving faster than our collective consciousness, it may take another author who possesses a calmer, scientific perspective to illustrate what we can do to counter this troubling trend. Matt Haig is allowing us a trip inside his mind and the sources of his anxiety. But if you want to come away feeling hopeful about the future, read Reasons to Stay Alive.