Even though a lot of my reading in recent years has been determined by the demands of this Library blog, the truth is that most of the time, I choose books that I genuinely feel like reading.
What makes me feel like reading one book over another at any given time? I think there’s more to it than meets the eye.
Sure, there’s the obvious fact of my tastes and preferences. I don’t think I’ve ever really felt drawn to reading horror, though every now and then, I’ve taken a peek. And for some reason, I’ve never been keen to start long, romantic sagas.
What I’m trying to get at here is an impulse that’s connected to my state of mind and body at a specific moment in time.
For instance, when I picked up Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, I wasn’t sad or depressed or experiencing a recent loss; rather, I was in a pensive, more philosophical mood. I didn’t want anything light and escapist: I was looking for something substantive and inspiring; something profound and human that would move me. That would linger. And that’s what made me so receptive to Kalanithi’s masterpiece, and why it had such an impact on me.
Anyone lucky enough to be an avid reader already has an understanding of reading’s powerful effect. I’m one of those who feels better just seeing a book.
In a 2015 BBC blog post titled “Can You Read Yourself Happy?”, Hephzibah Anderson wrote:
“They may not promise transformation in seven easy steps, but gripping novels can inform and motivate, short stories can console and trigger self-reflection, and poetry has been shown to engage parts of the brain linked to memory. Sometimes an author helps by simply taking your mind off a problem, immersing you so fully in another’s world and outlook that you transcend yourself, returning recharged and determined.”
Years ago, my husband, who reads only non-fiction in the form of biographies, documentary material and newspapers, looked at me wistfully—probably on a particularly stressful day—sighed and said: You’re so lucky; all you have to do is open a book and you escape far far away.
He stopped short of accusing me of self-medicating 🙂 , but if he had, I’m not sure that he would have been wrong. Intuitively, he understood reading’s therapeutic value in my life. He probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear of the emergence of a multidisciplinary approach to the restorative and curative powers of reading known as bibliotherapy.
Although it sounds newfangled, bibliotherapy’s origins can be traced back as far as the Ancient Greeks. In a fascinating piece that appeared in the New Yorker last year (and that gave me the idea for this blog post), Ceridwen Dovey describes how the Ancient Greeks : “inscribed above the entrance to a library in Thebes that this was a ‘healing place for the soul’.
After the First World War, the practice of bibliotherapy was found to help traumatized soldiers returning home, and librairies were placed in more and more hospitals. Today, the same practice has led to the creation of literature courses run for prison inmates, as well as reading workshops for those suffering from dementia.
Bibliotherapy can be serious business, and bibliotherapists often have academic expertise in such fields as cognition, education and the mental health professions. They’re teachers, therapists, researchers, and more. In Canada, many bibliotherapists belong to the Canadian Applied Literature Association (CALA), which: “[…] is an academic association committed to exploring the critical, activist, pedagogical, and therapeutic applications of literature and story.”
In her essay, Ceridwen Dovey adds that: “sometimes it can simply mean one-on-one or group sessions for “lapsed” readers who want to find their way back to an enjoyment of books.”
Thanks in large part to The School of Life (based in London, England, and founded by writer and philosopher Alain de Botton), bibliotherapy in this form has taken off all over the world. The School of Life now offers a bibliotherapy service that readers can register for online. Once this is done, readers are assigned a bibliotherapist who will connect with them on the phone or via Skype and help create an “inspirational reading prescription” that’s tailor-made for each person.
It delights me to confess that I discovered two of the School of Life’s bibliotherapists, Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, through a fantastic and fun book that popped up on my radar last year, titled The Novel Cure, An A-Z of Literary Remedies (which the Library has in its collection!)
In the introduction to the book, Berthoud and Elderkin explain that their: “belief in the effectiveness of fiction as the purest form of bibliotherapy is based on our own experience with patients and bolstered by an avalanche of anecdotal evidence. Sometimes it’s the story that charms; other times it’s the rhythm of the prose that works on the psyche, stilling or stimulating. Sometimes it’s an idea or an attitude suggested by a character in a similar quandary or jam. Either way, novels have the power to transport you to another existence and see the world from a different point of view.”
Written in the style of a medical dictionary, The Novel Cure offers charming, witty and frequently earnest prescriptions. What’s interesting about these is that they’re not conceived as simple medicines. For instance, for the ailment of “HAPPINESS, SEARCHING FOR”, the authors recommend Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451: in essence, providing the reader-patient with a meditation on the nature of happiness.
Sometimes, their prescriptions are more whimsical. For example, for the ailments “MOTHER-IN-LAW, BEING A“ and also “MOTHER-IN-LAW, HAVING A”, they prescribe Joanna Trollope’s Daughters-in-Law (with the tips of their tongues firmly in cheek, I bet).
The Novel Cure is a wonderful, joyous book that provides readers with a trove of literary prescriptions guaranteed to make life better, if only by encouraging us to sit down and enjoy reading as often as possible.
I’m a little worried that all this talk about literature’s curative powers has you worrying that we’ve slipped into something as catastrophic as the medicalization of reading. Fear not!
Still, as therapies go, bibliotherapy is tops on my list.
I’m reminded of the biblical proverb “Physician, heal thyself”.
One of the ways human beings do this is of course with the assistance of self-help books. When I did a search of the Library’s catalogue, just the words self-improvement yielded 384 titles as varied as:
- What helped me get through: cancer survivors share wisdom and hope, Julie K. Silver, ed.;
- The Woman’s retreat book: a guide to restoring, rediscovering, and reawakening your true self—in a moment, an hour, a day or a weekend, Jennifer Louden;
- Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, Karen Armstrong:
- The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth: Live Them and Reach your Potential, John C. Maxwell, and;
- The Abbey: a Story of Discovery, James Martin
Sometimes, we take it upon ourselves to become the bibliotherapists of others…whether they like it or not.
This is what Yann Martel undertook in 2008 when, in an effort to highlight a perceived “complete indifference” to the arts among the country’s political class, he gave himself the task of choosing and sending a book to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, accompanied by a letter of explanation (a lot like the comments included with each book prescribed in The Novel Cure), every two weeks for two years.
Sadly, it was a one way relationship; Martel never did receive a reply from Mr. Harper. Luckily for readers around the world, the complete list of titles and all of the accompanying letters Martel wrote were compiled and published in 2012, in a book titled 101 Letters to a Prime Minister.
Another wonderful bibliotherapeutic list that I discovered a couple of years ago was created by a fictitious character—which doesn’t make it any less valuable. It’s the reading list A.J. Fikry drew up for his daughter—his legacy to her—and he, too, annotates each recommendation. Luckily, I compiled all of his prescriptions in a blog post a couple of years ago, and you’re welcome to it! (but you’re best to read the novel, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, if you fancy reading his annotations).
Here in Montreal, there’s a book blogger who got out ahead of the bibliotherapy bandwagon. Her name is Andrea Borod, and she is the creator of The Book Dumpling blog. Andrea bravely claims to be a literary matchmaker, and The Book Dumpling’s motto is: “Everyone is a reader: you just need to find the right book.”
All that Andrea asks of visitors to the site who are yearning for an effective reading prescription is to fill out the diagnostic questionnaire that she has created. Her pitch is pretty irresistible:
“Reading is personal: The Book Dumpling has created a proprietary questionnaire for readers to fill out that helps to shape and determine your ideal reading list by understanding your personal tastes and interests in an effort to provide a deeper, more customized and enjoyable reading experience.
Please keep in mind that I respond to each and every questionnaire personally. My goal is to respond to you within five days.”
Thank you Andrea!
Here at the Online Book Club, I also feel that my mission is in part to find books that will elicit joy, compassion and even thrills; books that are thought-provoking; books that give us a sense of connection to others. I am, in fact, often prescribing them for a specific reason, as in The Art of Stillness.
A French bibliotherapy site I visited just recently inspired me with its affirmation (translated here by me) that: “When we read a book that does us some good, or that opens new doors, we’re experiencing bibliotherapy. Similarly, when we give someone a book with the intention of creating a connection between that person and the work, we become acting bibliotherapists.”
So I think we’re ready for the next step. In the coming months, in the newly created BIBLIOTHERAPY category, you’ll be able to find posts that are meant to address readers’ requests and needs explicitly. I also hope that you’ll actively write comments and share your reading suggestions. In that way, we’ll be acting as informal bibliotherapists to each other.
“In a secular age, I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks. Reading fiction makes me lose all sense of self, but at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself.”—Ceridwen Dovey