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Books Save Lives with Matt Haig

Posted on 11th May 2018 by Peter Whitehead

Despite effervescent triumphs such as his novel How to Stop Time, Matt Haig has long battled the spectre of depression. His courage to talk publically about his issues has been inspirational, and his account of those struggles and the battle to overcome them, Reasons to Stay Alive, has become the standard of its kind. Its companion volume, Notes on a Nervous Planet, Haig’s exploration of how to be healthy in a damaging world, is published on Thursday 5 July. For Mental Health Awareness Week, the author explores the power of books as a source of healing.

I have been asked to write a blog for Waterstones. As this is Waterstones I thought it would make sense to do this blog about books, as I have noticed Waterstones sells a lot of books. In fact, Waterstones is great if you want a book. Absolutely terrible if you want to buy some tropical fish or a house plant, but great for books. (Blog is my least favourite word, by the way, conjuring up an instantly-dated boggy loggy blur of ugliness. I think I will revert to the original 1998-style web log in future.)

As a writer, I am sometimes asked, in vague ways, about the power of books. And sometimes, as a writer of a book called Reasons to Stay Alive, I am asked about the power of books as therapy.

Up until I was 24, I would have cringed at the very idea that books could be a kind of literary Prozac. Fresh from a fancypants Masters degree in Eng Lit, I thought the point of a novel was to offer a mirror to life, not to shape it in anyway. I thought that story was to be sniffed at, and all that mattered was style. For a few bleak months I thought Money by Martin Amis was the best book ever written. (I still admire it, I just no longer love it.)

But then I became seriously ill with depression and anxiety and I went home to live with my parents. Back in my childhood bedroom I turned to books I had read as a teenager. And they helped. They weren’t, technically, self-help books. But they had that same effect. They were books I knew well. Childhood books and adult books. Books like The Outsiders by SE Hinton, and The Catcher in the Rye, and Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami and Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson and Different Seasons by Stephen King and The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper, and The Hobbit and even The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

I now discovered that stories could be a medicine. When you are stuck in an unchanging moment – the moment of depression – then books, specifically stories, can become a kind of religion. Something to believe in. Because for a story to be a story there has to be a change. A character or situational change. And when you are stuck you like to be reminded of the power of change and transformation. It can – corny as it sounds - give you strength.

Just a sentence, or a paragraph can give you strength.

Take this, from Haruki Murakami: “And once the storm is over, you won't remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won't even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won't be the same person who walked in.”

When you are in the storm, this is an amazing thing to hear, let me tell you.

So yes. Stories saved me. Words saved me. Think about what therapy often is – an exchange of words. And reading and writing stories is the best kind of word exchanges there are.

Books are therapy. Reading true experiences can be therapy but reading fiction is also therapy. When you understand this you realise there's nothing dry, dull or boring about books. They're the most vital, intimate, personal, mind-altering, thought-twisting, friend-giving, empathy-strengthening, thrill-riding, emotional, world-shaking technology we will ever have. And in a world where we are increasingly connected via technology, but disconnected by society, books and stories can be the glue that bonds us.

They’re important because they gives you room to exist beyond the reality you're given. Reading, in short, makes the world better. It is how humans merge. How minds connect.

Dreams. Empathy. Understanding. Escape. Reading is love in action.

It can save us all.

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How can we stay sane on a planet that makes us mad? How do we feel happy when we are encouraged to be anxious? After years of anxiety, these questions became urgent matters of life and death for Matt Haig. He began to look for the link between what he felt and the world around him. Notes on a Nervous Planet is a personal look at how to feel happy and human in the 21st Century.
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