Books can be – from time to time – exactly what you need to press the re-set button on your life.
Over the past few months I’ve entered a weird sort of limbo, feeling quite low and not having any particular direction to go in – and then acquiring a lot of additional anxiety to add to the mix. Indeed I originally aimed to write this post two months ago, hence why it is dated to two months before I actually got round to finishing writing the entire thing.
For a brief period of time I tried to re-imagine myself as a travel writer, as one might ascertain from my past few blog posts. Having plenty of spare time, and nothing in particular tying me down to my current residence, I jaunted pretty much wherever I was inspired to go. However, after my most recent trip down to London to volunteer at an animal sanctuary, it was unofficially “the plan” to put another plan in place.
However… one thing I did not account for was the possibility of my mood taking a very sudden downturn – previous existential issues which had been humming in the background of my brain for as long as I can remember suddenly got a lot louder and more urgent, and long story short, I’ve really not been in a very good place recently, brain-wise. Indeed, perhaps it is a good thing that, by this time, I hadn’t acquired any greater commitments to any third parties than a remote part-time gig as a freelance literary study guide writer, with no deadlines set in stone. Because I was about to spend at least a good few weeks getting reacquainted with my old regular companion, anxiety – and its bigger and meaner cousin, existential dread. The extent to which I had failed, repeatedly, to “establish” myself in the greater world’s society and culture, and even just in everyday life (by failing to meet many of the milestones which are normally expected of someone my age), was beginning to weigh heavily upon me. For a good few weeks I could do little other than stay in bed numbing myself with Netflix and Youtube re-runs in a bid to silence the ever-growing voice saying, let’s just say, rather scary things to me.
Whether this would have happened anyway, or whether it was a result of a recent change in medication (which can make you feel much worse in the beginning) I’m still not entirely sure, and I still suffer from recurrent depression and anxiety, only now I can (usually (eventually)) leave my bed, and even the house, at some point during the day. There’s no apparent reason why the very things which had been playing on my mind for a long time should have bothered me so much more but there you go. In a bid to cope, one thing which I ended up doing, which I didn’t realise I was doing all that much of at the time, was reading.
Some of this was work-related, which kept my brain somewhat active, and delayed the spiralling of the thoughts I was beginning to have. But most of it was a bid to seek an escape, and some hope. Below are the books in roughly the order I read them in, except where grouping them together makes better narrative sense.
*For now, I will not apologise for the fact that almost all of these books were acquired via Kindle – when you can’t even get round to renewing your library card and don’t want to risk having to ask someone for books you might be interested in (what a terrible would-be librarian I’ve become!) but still need to read things, then you’ll do things which are normally not quite in line with your principles: for me, that’s giving lots of business to Amazon.*
The Humans – Matt Haig
This author has started to have an increasingly greater influence on my outlook on life. “The Humans” was the first of his books that I read, as part of my study guide writing project, about an alien being from a faraway part of the universe coming to earth with an order to destroy the main character, Andrew, and take his place while completing the rest of his mission. Initially a coldly rational being who is puzzled by the strange-seeming ways of humans, he begins to slowly adapt and even to come to love his “family”, and ends up protecting them from the very mission which he was originally assigned to. Various aspects of the personality of “Andrew” – the alien – emerge through interactions with the humans around him; he is baffled as to why people eat animals and refuses any meat dishes offered to him (could he be an alien version of a vegan?), why people wear clothes and make certain facial expressions, and otherwise do things for no clear logical reason. The detached perspective on the ways of the human race cast a new light on how people find meaning in life. “Andrew” begins to find it in seemingly small things; music, wine, the poetry of Emily Dickinson (the author and I seem to share a bit of an obsession with Dickinson) – and ultimately in a newfound love for his family. The “rules for life” at the end of the book, which “Andrew” writes for his son, are full of deceptively profound pieces of advice, and it’s quite difficult to be honest to not try out at least a few.
The Last Days of Night – Graham Moore
Another book read for the study guide writing project, “The Last Days of Night” chronicles the dawn of the era of electrical lighting, and the resulting legal war being waged by proclaimed light-bulb inventor Thomas Edison on his immediate rival George Westinghouse. Precocious young lawyer Paul Cravath, attempting to make a name for himself far away from his humble beginnings, is tasked with defending Westinghouse, which seems like an increasingly impossible task given the ruthlessness with which Edison is prepared to defend his patent. Meanwhile New York has become, literally, a beacon of light in the new world of America as Edison’s bulbs, despite their dangerous direct current electricity, begin to adorn the streets, bringing new light – and resulting new possibilities – to the people. Paul rises to the challenge, and soon encounters another major figure from the era, Nikola Tesla, who has developed brilliant and unprecedented visions for scientific progress, including the safe harnessing of alternating current which would see safe and reliable lighting being brought to everyone in the country, and eventually the world. Paul’s attention is soon waylaid by the appearance of actress Agnes Huntington, who seeks his legal assistance for another case and is soon shown to be hiding a secret past life.
The main thing which drew me into this book was the portrayal of the characters, who have dialogue almost exactly of the style which would be used today, and indeed the author has a knack for making the world of late nineteenth century New York feel just as vivid, relevant and contemporary as it is today. The secret desire of Agnes to shed her stuffy facade and cut loose into the less reputable corners of New York high society shows a flicker of rebellion which contradicts the flat and lifeless image which many have of that era. Another key detail which gives the narrative an additional relevance is the use of quotes from key modern figures in science and technology, such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the internet (at least as we know it today)), which effectively foreshadow the events shortly to come. As a fan of historical fiction (when done just the right way) the juxtaposition of old and new automatically catches my interest and creates the feeling that the past is not so much a foreign country as a thing which is often overlooked and misunderstood by many, and takes a skilled writer to bring back to life.
Sapiens: A Brief History of Mankind – Yuval Harari
Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow – Yuval Harari
*I’ll get round to reviewing these two books shortly. They require quite a bit more dissection than I feel capable of right now but trust me – they’re quite something*
How To Stop Time – Matt Haig
The most recent release by the author, “How To Stop Time” is a story about a man called Tom who has lived for over four hundred years, due to having an extremely rare condition – “anageria” – which delays ageing and vastly prolongs life. Over the most recent years he has been starting his life over every eight years in a different part of the world under a different identity, and this time he has chosen to be a history teacher at a school in London. He carries the unimaginable emotional burden of hundreds of years of love, grief and strife, having personally known some of the figures who we consider to be icons today, such as Shakespeare. He meets Camille, a fellow teacher at the school who bears her own emotional burden and with whom Tom begins to fall in love, a thing which he never felt able to do ever again. Almost continually on the brink of having his secret identity uncovered, Tom attempts to come to terms with his past and his condition, and tries to find a way to seek meaning in an unnaturally long life.
In contrast to “The Humans”, “How To Stop Time” casts a new perspective on the significance of the human lifespan by provoking thought on how we experience the passage of time. As the former invites you to imagine landing on Earth from an unfathomable distance, the latter invites you to imagine living several consecutive lifetimes, and what such a life would do physically and emotionally to a person. Also, it has a way of making even the oldest-feeling person feel young, which is something which would benefit me seeing as I feel old all the time.
Reasons To Stay Alive – Matt Haig
This is a book which I put off reading for quite a while, but one day recently, decided that I needed to read as soon as possible. “Reasons To Stay Alive” is the personal account of the author’s struggle with severe depression, recalling the worst of the time with emotional clarity, interspersed with thoughts and musings on the nature of depression and how it is perceived and treated by society at large. As someone who has done battle with anxiety and depression on and off (mostly on) throughout my life, this is a deeply reassuring – and of huge value to many more people – book to have to hand when things feel particularly rough and unmanageable. At first worried that the book would contain mere platitudes on the “meaning of life” and how “life is a precious gift and we must live every day to the fullest extent possible” (which to me is not so much helpful as demoralising because if it really were that easy why is not literally everyone doing it by now?), it instead contained a gently but unrelentingly honest examination of the various nuances in mental state which the author experienced on a day to day basis, when simple tasks seemed impossible and the world took on an intimidating hue. It also recalls how the “cure” for depression did not appear suddenly, or indeed even be really a cure; rather the good days eventually began to outnumber the bad ones, small but memorable steps towards the light were made and the author found solace, primarily, in writing. The resounding message is that depression is a common part of the human condition and that it is up to ourselves to find out what gives our own lives meaning. That’s something I’ve been trying to work on for quite a long time now…
The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
Having watched the show “Sabrina The Teenage Witch” in my teeny-bopper years, I was intrigued to find a “re-imagining” of the show in graphic novel form whilst quite urgently seeking out more reading (i.e. distracting) material on Amazon. The instant download option – and the resulting instant gratification – is just too irresistible for someone who now, more often than not these days, does not leave the house. This was… quite a departure from the TV show.
This version is basically an R-rated version of a very PG-rated show, in which Sabrina is a member of a satanic coven of witches who are not averse to casting terrifying curses on, and even killing, those who interfere with them in any way. An initially innocent high school romance turns rapidly into a murder mystery, and Sabrina as a young novice witch must try to navigate this world. Exactly how this will be done remains to be seen.
The Little Mermaid – Metaphrog
Metaphrog are a Scottish graphic artist duo who produce rich and vibrant illustrations, often to accompany traditional fairytales. Their latest, “The Little Mermaid”, tells the original Hans Christian Andersen version (quite different from the Disney one), of the mermaid who gave up her entire life (at first figuratively then eventually literally) for a young man she rescued at sea. Of course I did not read the book for the traditional tale but rather for the evocative imagery accompanying the narrative. For a while I considered a move into graphic novel writing but I never felt confident enough in my illustration skills – once upon a time I was quite adept at using Photoshop but I’m living proof that if you do not continually maintain your skills they will quite rapidly deteriorate until it is as if you never had them in the first place. I consider myself a fan of Metaphrog now and I feel like they will inspire me in the future.
Neil Gaiman once dubbed the humble book as an “empathy machine”, through which anyone can experience another perspective simply by reading. As someone who, more often than is desirable, misses out on the opportunity to flex and exercise my empathy muscle in a more obvious and active way (say by contributing more creative output via actually writing fiction, as I have long aimed but somehow felt unable to do) I settle for absorbing whatever I can, in terms of literature, and trying to write (or photograph, or compose, or something) about my own perspective, in the hopes that it will have any resonance to anyone out there.
Reading – if and when I cannot write, which is the case an embarrassing amount of the time – at least helps me to feel tangentially involved in the wider world (I think the closest term I can think of is the “zeitgeist” but that sounds unbearably pompous but hopefully you get what I mean) and as if the spark which will finally kick me into action is waiting on a random page – that it’s just a matter of keeping going. Sometimes that really seems to be all you can do because… well, just because.