Shelf Care: Words of solace in Matt Haig's The Comfort Book

The Comfort Book is, by its author's admission, a messy book.
The Comfort Book is, by its author's admission, a messy book.PHOTOS: CANONGATE, KAN LAILEY

The Comfort Book

By Matt Haig
Non-fiction/Canongate/Paperback/256 pages/$30.90/Available here

This book seeks to do exactly what it says on the tin.

It is, by its author's admission, a messy book - a haphazard collection of quotes, stories and loose thoughts that have at some point supplied him with comfort.

A lot of things in these pages read like truisms: it is okay to be who you are, do not judge your self-worth by social media, there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so - to quote Shakespeare's Hamlet - and so on.

What sets this apart from your average airy self-help spiel is how closely Haig grounds his writing in his own experience of depression.

Haig, who opened up about his mental health in his best-selling memoir Reasons To Stay Alive (2015), nearly committed suicide when he was 24.

In The Comfort Book, he writes: "The hardest question I have ever been asked is, 'How do I stay alive for other people if I have no one?'

"The answer is that you stay alive for other versions of you. For the people you will meet, yes, sure, but also the people you will be."

He recounts the stories of remarkable individuals: Juliane Koepcke, who aged 17 was the sole survivor of a plane crash and hiked alone through the Amazonian rainforest for 11 days until she found help; and Nellie Bly, the ground-breaking female journalist who scored her first scoop by going undercover in a mental asylum.

He muses about the "emotive power of hummus". He puts together lists of songs, books and movies that make him feel better. He discusses how to breathe through a panic attack.

He is sanguine that this book will cure nothing - at 46, he continues to live with depression - but it may help buy time.

"I didn't realise that there is something bigger than depression, and that thing is time. Time disproves the lies depression tells."

One of the poems he quotes is from Rainer Maria Rilke's The Book Of Hours: "Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final."

Rilke's lines have been popping up all over of late, since they appeared as an epigraph in the Oscar-nominated film Jojo Rabbit (2019).

I should hate for them to become trite, though, because they are true. No feeling is final.

• Shelf Care is a twice-weekly column that recommends uplifting, comforting or escapist books to read while staying home during the Covid-19 pandemic.


Getting help

National Care Hotline: 1800-202-6868 (8am - 12am)

Mental well-being

Fei Yue’s Online Counselling Service: eC2.sg (Mon to Fri, 10am to 12pm, 2pm to 5pm)
Institute of Mental Health’s Mental Health Helpline: 6389-2222 (24 hours)
Samaritans of Singapore:  1800-221-4444 (24 hours) /1-767 (24 hours)
Singapore Association for Mental Health: 1800-283-7019 (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm) 
Silver Ribbon Singapore:  6386-1928/6509-0271  (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)
Tinkle Friend: 1800-274-4788 (Mon to Fri, 2.30pm to 5pm)/ tinklefriend.sg (Mon to Thu, 2.30pm to 7pm and Fri, 2.30pm to 5pm)

Counselling

TOUCHline (Counselling): 1800-377-2252  (Mon to Fri, 9am to 6pm)
Care Corner Counselling Centre (Mandarin): 1800-353-5800 (Daily, 10am to 10pm)

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