Worrying: A Literary and Cultural History by Francis O'Gorman, book review

The literary critic and English professor explores the meaning of worry, where it comes from and how it came to be our constant companion

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The Independent Culture

Did you lock the back door this morning? Are you replaying that conversation with your boss on endless loop? Is the prospect of booking a summer holiday terrifying? In his new book, Francis O'Gorman, literary critic and professor of English, offers a witty, philosophical meditation on the meaning of worry, where it comes from and how it came to be our constant companion.

His scale of reference is vast – taking in Shakespeare, Freud, Marx, Proust, John Stuart Mill and Woody Allen – as he charts the "history" of worry from Victorian times, via the burgeoning of self-help books around the First World War and the birth of Modernism (Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway and TS Eliot's Alfred J Prufrock are classic "worriers"), up to present-day Twitter and Facebook. Outing himself as a terrible worrier, O'Gorman writes, apologetically: "There isn't a claim for the sophistication of the lives we worriers lead in our heads. I'm looking at a rough patch of land covered with clumps of nettles and broken Muscadet bottles. I am interested in it because I live on it."

Many of us also know that nettle patch. Though worrying is different from depression (it's not a disease), it manages to bleed into our lives. The very words "What if?" have the power to spoil the most positive outlook. Worse still, worrying is boring and unsexy. While we might confide our sexual or money worries to friends, these "subterranean anxieties" often remain unspoken.

So has worrying always been with us? Prior to the the Victorians, O'Gorman explains, the verb "to worry" existed but it meant to choke or strangle humans or animals.

"Worry novels" such as George Gissing's New Grub Street started appearing from the mid-19th century, documenting lives trapped in difficult financial and domestic circumstances. Then Modernism blew the doors off with its view of the modern, urban self. In many ways, he suggests, worrying is the legacy of modern free will.

"Worry is the unhappy child of a turn from the Gods to man." Yes we have a rich inner life now. But we are responsible for our own mistakes. Capitalism and free market forces have made things harder. There's almost too much choice (from cosmetic surgery and online dating to designer candles). Plus the cult of positive thinking insists we can make ourselves happier if we try harder.

You sense O'Gorman has little faith in this breezy optimism. For a start we all have a different genetic lottery. And by telling someone to cheer up, aren't we sweeping far bigger topics (such as social injustice) under the carpet? Much of the thrust of the book sees O'Gorman trying to tease out positive benefits of "this strange gift of unhappiness". Maybe worrying makes us more thoughtful, open-minded, he asks hopefully? Or is this just the narcissist's defence?

In the end, he surmises, the attempt to "cure" worry is wasted labour. "Worry is inextricable from the world in which, as Westerners, we now live." But, he adds, we need more ways to talk about the inner life, to help people unlock their fears. "Like a bat", worry does not like being brought into the light. It is frankly evasive. So although the visual arts and music can provide temporary distraction for the worrier, we need words – fragile, unstable words – to express it. Thankfully O'Gorman has given us some more.