The Paradox Of Modern Life: Notes On A Nervous Planet – Book Review

This book review was originally written for ECBC Manchester’s book club and can be read on their website here.

You know those days when the world seems to be running on high speed around you: the days when your mind is abuzz with all the should and musts and the endless to-dos and you can’t keep up? You know those days when you wish there was a universal mute or pause button so you could just catch your breath? This is the book you want by your side on those days.

For ECBC Manchester’s Book Club I wanted to return to the work of one of my favourite authors, Matt Haig. I’ve reviewed Reasons to Stay Alive in a previous book club post, as a powerful, personal book giving a relatable and unflinching account of living with depression and anxiety. Notes On A Nervous Planet is just as profound, just a relatable, just as empowering but, in some ways, completely different.

Where Reasons was a story of personal mental health and mental illness, Notes examines our collective, cultural mental state and how the modern world exacerbates our anxieties. Whilst still using personal anecdotes to illustrate his poignant insight, Matt Haig also weaves in facts and figures on everything from mental illness to climate change, along with thoughtful reflections, poetry and his own answers to some big questions:

1. How can we stay sane on a planet that makes us mad?

2. How do we stay human in a technological world?

3. How do we feel happy when we are encouraged to be anxious?

The thing I really love about this book is that it gets to the heart of some of the many things in society that lead us into unhealthy places. A particular favourite is in the chapter Lonely Crowds, which opens with:

The paradox of modern life is this: we have never been more connected and we have never been more alone.

An insightful summary of the modern human condition if ever there was one. Haig goes on in this chapter to look at the many ways in which our digitally connected lives are increasingly disconnecting us from the physical connections we, as social creatures, need. But he doesn’t get mired in lamenting these disappearing connections, he talks about what he is doing to tackle this in his own life and, in doing so, gives us practical suggestions for how we can tackle it in ours.

Therein lies the beauty of Notes On A Nervous Planet. As with Reasons To Stay Alive, it takes what could be a bleak and hopeless subject, examines it in all it’s grimy reality, but then offers up hope, a way forward, an sense of empowerment. He doesn’t for a moment pretend that it’s easy to do. He acknowledges that it’s “so bloody hard” to do and shares his own stumbles with his usual candid openness, but you are still left with the feeling that the changes he suggests are both desirable and achievable.

By turn funny and serious, Haig invites us away from our screens, away from our insecurities, away from our anxieties. He invites us away from the daily grind and outside: “Into air and sunlight. Into life.”

Beautifully and simply written, this book is a must-read for anyone feeling the wear of the daily grind. It’s pages left me feeling encouraged and with the urge to look up and let the wind carry some of my fears away. Another triumph.

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