Matt Haig, the author of the best-selling “The Midnight Library,” a novel in which a deeply despondent young woman happens on a magical archive of the many routes her life could have taken, now offers readers more inspiration and hope in a confusing time with his essays in his just published “The Comfort Book.” The prolific British author lives in Brighton, England, with his wife and two children.
BOOKS: What have you been reading?
HAIG: Over the last year I’ve been reading a lot of nonfiction with a vague philosophical or religious leaning. I recently read Pema Chodron’s “When Things Fall Apart.” She’s a Buddhist and writes about how in the West we have trouble with uncertainty and accepting the pain of life. That helped me toward the end of last year. I also read Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird,” which is about writing but also about life. Purely for research I read the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales from 1812, which is much cruder and darker than the later version. I’ve also been reading a lot of old books, such as Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Dispossessed” and Raymond Chandler’s “The Lady in the Lake.”
BOOKS: How many books do you read at once?
HAIG: I have about three or four on the go. I’m a very unfaithful reader. My favorite books are ones I don’t even read straight through. I just dip into them, like my favorite of all time, Italo Calvino’s “Invisible Cities.” It has little vignettes about fantastical cities, which are like fever dreams of Venice.
BOOKS: How would you describe your taste as a reader?
HAIG: My tastes go from low- to highbrow. I’ve been reading Elton John’s memoir, “Me,” which is fun because he’s such a candid person. Every paragraph contains something scandalous. I like that kind of memoir, when it feels like you are overhearing a conversation. I also ordered Michel de Montaigne’s complete works. I find him a very modern writer for someone who wrote in the 1600s. He’ll do an essay on noses or fashion. It’s like modern magazine journalism style but then he suddenly gets philosophical.
BOOKS: Have you always read books to think about and get advice about life?
HAIG: Not at all. I used to be the ultimate snob about that kind of thing. As I’ve grown older I feel like books are the perfect medium for our philosophical side, especially in the social media age. It doesn’t have to be an overtly philosophical book to do that. I can be a novel or poetry. You can probably even get that from Elton John’s memoir.
BOOKS: Which novels have been influential for your life?
HAIG: When I was a kid I loved the S.E. Hinton books, which aren’t well known in England. I loved “The Outsiders” and “Rumble Fish.” Those showed me that reading doesn’t have to be good for you, like a breakfast cereal you don’t want to eat. It can just be as entertaining as film. Hinton kept me reading as a teenage boy even though I went to a very sports-centric school where reading was not the thing to do. It became my secret activity. Then I met my best friend Jonathan, who loved horror novels. We read Stephen King’s “Christine,” about this possessed, demonic car, simultaneously and would talk about it in school. It was a period after I’d been very alone and then had my two-person reading club.
BOOKS: When did you become the reader you are today?
HAIG: Probably during my recovery from depression in my 20s. Until that point I was insecure as a writer and reader. I had done a master’s and had been conditioned to believe literature had to be a certain way. When I began to recover from my depression I was determined to no longer be snobby about what I read. I was staying in my childhood room and was agoraphobic so didn’t have much access to books other than the ones I had from childhood. “The House at Pooh Corner” was massive for me. That became like a self-help book to me because it has so much wisdom about life.