As I’ve said before, it’s sometimes difficult separating quality and purpose when reviewing something. When I reviewed The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas I was a bit scared to admit that I had been disappointed by the book because it was so tied up with such an important issue. I didn’t want to suggest that not liking the book meant that I was against the message at its core. It was that I thought it could have dealt with that issue better. I’m now facing that situation again as I try to work through my feeling for Matt Haig’s second mental health oriented book. How can you criticse a book where a man opens up about his mental health issues and discusses his difficult relationship with social media? How can you openly criticise a book that has, by all accounts, helped plenty of people deal with their own mental health issues? Any criticism of the book could very well be taken as a criticsim of Haig himself or the people who have found help from it. But reading is a very personal thing. As is mental health. What works for one won’t necessarily work for another. So, it is with trepidation, that I offer my immediate thoughts on Notes on a Nervous Planet.
October 10th was World Mental Health Day and, in the spirit of the day, I decided to read a book that was appropriate for the day. It feels like this book has been following me around Instagram so I decided it must be a sign. I’ve not read anything else by Matt Haig but have heard nothing but great things. And, as someone who has experienced mental health issues, Matt Haig seemed like the kind of person to offer a unique perspective. I started off on October 10th feelings so happy and in awe of this book. These days, as I never have a pencil to hand, I take photos of key quotes so I can revisit them later. I started taking loads of photos of things I loved. I was racing through the pages and eating that shit up.
Cut to nearly two weeks later and I’d started to tire of Haig’s book. I was becoming cynical and taking more photos of things that annoyed me. The longer it went on the more repetitive and simplistic it became. Basically the more it started to resemble a trite self-help book. Just a bunch of pseudo-profound aphorisms. It’s full of just enough truth to feel insightful but is actually overly simplistic. I’m glad that it’s helping people but, for me, it just feels shallow and empty. It started to feel like one of the cash grabs that Haig himself was bemoaning. In fact, one of the quote that I photographed felt very hypocritical as I got further on.
‘Fear, uncertainty, and doubt, or FUD, is often used legitimately by business and organizations to make consumers stop, think, and change their behaviour. FUD is so powerful that it’s capable of nuking the competition.’
Yeah, I get it. Marketers are all about using fear but how is Haig any different? His book is billed as a tool to help people survive in the modern world. It feeds off the anxiety of desperate people hoping to find an easy fix. It’s exactly the kind of thing that will sell yet, really, it adds very little to the narrative.
Now, I understand that Haig isn’t purposefully trying to use people for monetary gain in the same way that advertisers are. He genuinely wants to use his experience to help people but there is an undeniable element of economic gain. Which would be fine if the end result was more substantial and helpful. As it is, it feels like there are a lot of filler and it’s only about 300 pages long. And most of those aren’t even full! The best parts of Haig’s book are the moments when he recounts his personal history with depression and anxiety. The way he adds personal insight into the medical jargon and statistics. The rest of the book is just his simplified and often naive advice for surviving in the modern world. Advice that, for the most parts, amounts to “just stop doing negative things”.
That’s something that annoyed me the most. The way Haig, someone who should know better, seemed to suggest that the only thing stopping you having an anxiety filled life is that you keep having anxiety. Well, duh! There is one section where he talks about work being one of the most stressful parts of our lives and his advice to those struggling is to just find another job. Something that sounds great on the page but isn’t exactly practical advice. I got so sick of the amount of times that Haig’s answer to life’s problems was to stop doing something. Using your phone too much? Stop. Bothered about the way you look? Stop. Hate your job? Stop. Worried about the world? Stop. I mean thank god he came along when he did to give everyone that amazing advice.
There’s a sense that Haig isn’t really part of the real world at times. At one point he advises to “do something somewhere in the day that isn’t work or duty or the internet” which is sound advice. However, the list of suggestions he offers sounds like something Maria from The Sound of Music would suggest. It’s a jarring change from a book that has, up until that point, felt quite scientific in its use of facts and figures. It’s also not something unique to Haig. In fact, all of the advice that he offers is stuff that people have jabbering on about for years. Haig is just regurgitating popular and useful advice in bite size pieces that are easy to digest. And, because of his past, he can give himself a sense of authority that he otherwise wouldn’t have had.
Because, it’s worth noting, he’s not trained in psychotherapy. There are moments when you can really tell. In fact, based on my personal reading experience, there are moments in this book that might actually be damaging. There were a number of sections that gave me anxiety about things that I’d never had anxiety about before. This book stressed me out more than I would have been had I not read it. That seems to be going against everything it was supposed to do. It’s a really weird decision to set the book out the way he has. For someone bemoaning the fast-paced world, it really throws a ton of information at you. I get that it’s supposed to be easily digestible and stuff but it is definitely problematic.
In fact, the only thing that makes Haig’s book stand-out is his writing and his personal anecdotes but there wasn’t enough of either. There were so many pages that contained only 5 or 6 sentences. And the number of lists? We get it, people like lists. People feel more comfortable getting their information in lists. Lists make sense. But they also become kind of redundant the more information you put into each point. They don’t exactly offer a lot of detail. Like the whole of this book. It’s disappointing that a book that so many people have praised is actually so empty. I’m glad Haig has helped some people and I’m happy that he has mostly found a way to handle his issues. But I can’t say that I’m going to get any kind of help from Notes on a Nervous Planet. It didn’t tell me anything that I didn’t know before. It also didn’t tell me anything I couldn’t have read online for free.