Books, Art, & Visual Culture


Writing and design by Melissa Hill, graphic designer.

First, We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson

I believe with all my heart that just understanding the metapurpose of the anxious struggle helps to make it beautiful. Purposeful, creative, bold, rich, deep things are always beautiful.
— Sarah Wilson, "First, We Make the Beast Beautiful"

Of course, my reason for wanting this book was its beautiful cover design. Can you blame me? Featuring a lovely uncoated hardcover, printed in three spot colours, with the addition of silver foil, it fulfils all my design geek dreams.  The waving tentacles of the octopus illustration in lovely tonal blues, the poppy fluoro pink, and the unconventional layout of the silver type, all contribute to making this the trendiest looking self-help book I’ve ever come across. Because that’s how I had it firmly categorised in my head: as a self-help book.

And I don’t do self-help books.

I’m certainly not casting aspersions on anyone who finds that genre rewarding, but I guess I’m generally too cynical and stubborn to give this section of the book store a fair go. Even if you enjoy reading these kinds of books, surely you have to admit that, en masse, they can come across as a tad cheesy. Particularly the cover designs. Good gracious, the cover designs in the self-help section.

Let’s go off on a small tangent for a few moments, shall we? A quick google search… let’s say “best selling self help books 2018”. OK, this list sounds good. It’s the “50 Best Self Help Books to Read in 2018”. Here’s a selection of cover designs:

7 Habits of Highly Effective People.jpg
How to Win Friends and Influence People.jpg
Rich Dad Poor Dad.jpg
The 4-Hour Work Week.jpg

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say… they’re a bit… ugly… aren’t they? I’m so sorry if you’re reading this and one of these covers is the result of your hard work – I know what it’s like designing something to a client brief, to a budget, to a deadline. I get it. But I just don’t find the majority of cover designs in the self-help/motivational/self-improvement section of the bookstore particularly inspiring. They’re not something that makes me want to pick up the book. They’re not something that makes me want to read the book, or own the book. Possibly if I’d had the book recommended to me and I did want to read it, I’d be more inclined to read it on my e-reader, because there’s not the incentive to hold the physical object. There’s no desire.

I like to feel a bit of desire for my books.

But as I mentioned earlier, I don’t “do” self-help books so, as physically desirable as it is, I resisted this one. I thought, “Oh it’s about anxiety, I don’t really need to read about that. I have way too much fiction on my TBR list and a book about anxiety just sounds like a bit of a mood killer to be honest.”

So here I am, over a year after the book’s initial release and whenever I pass it in a store, it still catches my eye. I’ve heard from friends of friends that they thought it was good. And then one day, I start thinking that perhaps my tendency to need to organise everything extremely far in advance and worry about things that aren’t a problem yet is possibly not simply your garden variety due diligence. I decide to read the book.

For me, that’s what First, We Make the Beast Beautiful was good for. Sarah Wilson describes in a rather chaotic, meandering style, her experiences with living with anxiety. Her anxiety is extreme, but there were more than a few characteristics that she described that I found myself recognising in myself. If you’ve always been a “bit anxious” but never considered that you may suffer from anxiety, if you wonder if anyone else shares those odd tendencies you have, or thought spirals you get into, then this book is a good way to start that conversation with yourself (and potentially with someone else also). I agree with a lot of the comments on Goodreads that the frequent name-dropping in the book gets tiresome pretty quickly and smacks of a celebrity lifestyle. I’d like to give Sarah Wilson the benefit of the doubt here though and suggest that perhaps the publisher felt that those kinds of anecdotes would help the book sell better.


This book won’t be for everyone. Some people have said that it actually makes them more anxious and I can understand that. At one point, I found myself wondering how one would find the time in a normal day to put into effect all Sarah’s suggestions to help alleviate the symptoms of anxiety. And she does talk about quitting sugar quite a lot, as a hard and fast rule. It kind of makes it feel like this book is part advertisement for all her other books. And she makes blanket statements such as, “When you’re an anxious type, meditation is non-negotiable”. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with such a definitive one-size-fits-all rule.

Having said that, I did find First, We Make the Beast Beautiful an interesting read and one that helped me to realise that perhaps I should have this conversation with myself. I like Sarah’s view that her anxiety is not something to attempt to eradicate or “fix”, that it’s a part of what makes her herself. Her aim instead is to work with it, to manage it, and to learn how to still get around to the business of living a good life whilst not changing who she is.

Plus, you know… it has a pretty cover.