Matt Haig – Stories That Connect Us – 16th August 2015.
The Siobhan Dowd Trust Memorial Lecture saw Matt Haig take to the stage this year. To learn more about the trust and what they do, visit their website.
It begins with a question: “What is the point of books?”
If an alien came down to earth, they’d ask about several things – clothes, motorways, the Great British Bake Off. But what do we then say when they ask about books?
“They can be anything, and do anything you want,” answers Matt, though he concedes it’s a bit of a cop-out answer. “But it’s very important to humans. It makes us who we are.”
Need is a word that can be misconstrued. Millions of species have survived without reading material, “there are no pandas panicking about having not read The Fault in Our Stars.”
“Books are a different kind of nourishment,” he continues, “they’re soul feeders. Books can save your life.” He talks about his own experiences in which he battled severe depression, where suicide was a real option, and how reading gave him something in the darkness. He returned to his parents home and found it full of books; he re-read The Outsiders, a teen favourite, and found ways to connect with his younger self. “It was choreographing the anarchy of my mind.”
“You want to believe in the possibility of change,” Matt offers, “and stories are just that.”
Depression is an internal battle; “your head might be on fire but no one sees the flames”. But it’s also a bit like a vampire in that it can die in the light – write about it, put it into words and it’s less alien; it may feel the same, but your view of it changes.
Reading and writing is bigger than just getting a job, and the culture secretary playing its importance down is, to paraphrase, he says, “A load of bollocks.” Fiction is as important to society as dreams are to the individual.
Books help us to see ourselves and each other properly, novels help us understand worlds we never knew and have new experiences without risking anything. Books connect us to the world and can be friends in and of themselves.
“Books aren’t in opposition to technology,” he adds, “they are technology, ever progressing.” They can start revolutions and impart ideas that can change the world. Books can change the world, and books can change you.
This downplaying the importance of reading is a problem: they should not be seen as a nice middle class luxury. “Books are for all of us at every stage of our life,” Matt reinforces. “Do not let governments put a barrier between anyone and a book.”
His lecture is an empowering one, spattered with the humour those who have read his books can recognise that brings dark and difficult subject matter to a more comfortable public consciousness. More so, it brings to mind the important connections each individual has to books. The Q&A session delves deeper into the issues of mental health and it is a conversation that’s vitally important, and one Matt has been very open about.
There’s no set way to deal with mental health problems, but it being given a platform like this is a great step: “Life gives you reasons to stay alive if you listen to it.”