Ahead of Mental Health Awareness Week (10th-16th May) we caught up with mental health campaigner, author and Read, Talk, Share ambassador Natasha Devon to chat about all things reading, libraries and mental health.
Why do you think reading matters?
Reading is one of the few activities which involves all of the senses joining together - It's visual, because you are painting pictures in your mind based on the words you're seeing or hearing; it's auditory, because you hear the words you read in your own voice; and it's kinaesthetic because when we imagine something really vividly we have physical responses (that's why when we're reading horror stories we scrunch up to protect our vital organs, or when we read about someone eating something yummy our mouths water). If you can get yourself in 'the zone', reading totally engages you and helps to give you respite from reality - I think a lot of us need that, especially right now!
What are you reading at the moment?
I always have two books on the go - One fiction and one non-fiction. I was lucky enough to be given an advance copy of Otto English's 'Fake History', which is out in June and is excellent - There are so many myths and bits of hearsay that have somehow become cornerstones of British and western folklore and culture. We use them to convince ourselves we're somehow 'better' than other nations and therefore prop up empire and a colonial mentality. We really need to ensure history is taught more accurately to avoid repeating our mistakes. And I've just finished the novel 'Last Night' by Mhairi McFarlane - She uses a really clever plot device - the best friend of the protagonist dies suddenly (this happens in chapter 2 so I'm not spoiling anything) and it's about grief and loss but also never having closure, because you always assume there will be time to have conversations with the people you love. I love McFarlane's style of writing - She uses incredibly evocative turns of phrase which are somehow both unique and instantly recognisable. There were so many moments in the novel where I thought 'yes! I know exactly what she means but also no one has ever described it quite like that, before'.
How has reading helped your mental health?
I have an anxiety disorder and it peaks and troughs, so my choice of reading material differs depending on how much I am struggling. When my anxiety levels are relatively low, that's when I love to read about mental health - authors like Bryony Gordon, Poorna Bell, Jonny Benjamin and Alex Holmes. That's when my brain can compute and properly absorb what is being said, so I can tuck the pearls of wisdom away for when I inevitably need them in the future. When my anxiety levels are high, I try to indulge in 'escapism'. I've really got into psychological thriller novels recently, for when I need a 'page turner'.
Why do you love libraries?
There's something really egalitarian about libraries - Anyone can use them to access knowledge. Personally, I find it really relaxing to be surrounded by books - the older and mustier the better! And I like that they're quiet. Life can seem so loud, sometimes, it's nice to have a guaranteed sanctuary.
What was the first book you borrowed from a library?
The first book I borrowed was from my primary school library when I was in infants and it was The Very Hungry Catapillar. I remember my teacher reading it to us and thinking the illustrations were very cool, but when I got the book home I was scared of them, for some reason!
What books would you recommend for anyone on the hunt for their next read?
There are too many good books in the world. That's both a reason to celebrate and a burden because if I read everything I wanted to I wouldn't get anything else done. Here are some great books I've read in the past 6 months:
- Mixed/Other by Natalie Morris - Natalie, who is of mixed heritage herself, interviews 50 other mixed people about their experiences of growing up and living in Britain.
- Jews Don't Count by David Baddiel - A short but important read about how Jews are often missed in conversations about marginalised/minority communities.
- In The Kitchen: Essays on Food and Life compiled by Nigel Slater - A collection of thoughts from various authors on food/cooking and how it's inextricably linked with life.
- Girl A by Abigail Dean - A woman who escaped an abusive home as a child's mother dies in jail. She is the executor of her mother's will, meaning she has to find her six siblings, who are scattered all over the place, to settle the estate.
- Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata - This is such an unusual novel and I can't rationalise why it's so brilliant, or really explain the plot. Just read it.
- Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid - A really nuanced and authentic exploration of racism and the many forms it takes, as told by a young black woman who is accused of kidnapping the white child she is babysitting.
Any tips for avoiding distractions when reading?
Turn off your phone notifications! This is a good tip for life, whether you're reading or not. Tech is designed to be addictive and the notifications which pop up on our home screen induce a pavlovian response (i.e. you want to jump on your phone immediately and aren't fully in control of that reaction). Social media can be a wonderful way to connect, be entertained and access information, but we should be checking in when we choose, not when our phones dictate.
On Tuesday 11th May Natasha will be joining mental health blogger and campaigner Claire Eastham for a free online event hosted by The Reading Agency in support of Mental Health Awareness. Claire has experienced 371 panic attacks (and counting) in the last seven years, so you could say she is a bit of an expert on panic. In this virtual event they will be talking about Natasha's new book, F**k I Think I'm Dying, and discuss the practical ways people can manage feelings of panic as the country 'opens up' again following lockdown, and in all other aspects of life. Tickets are free and there will be a Q&A with Natasha and Claire at the end of the event. Find out more and register for your free ticket here.