Heartbroken? Mother-in-law dramas? Identity crisis? Take one dose of literature and repeat until better.
I learnt a new word last month: ‘bibliotherapy’
Sitting in the audience at the biennial conference of the Australian School Libraries Association (ASLA) (a fitting whereabouts to expand my vocabulary) my curiosity was piqued when one of the keynote speakers, a prominent Sydney bookseller, shared a story about teenagers visiting his bookshop in search of books to make them cry. I was provoked. Why would young people want books that trigger sadness? In his experience, both the young (and apparently the not-so-young) crave ‘to feel’ and, in the disconnectedness of today’s connected world, they are using literature as therapy. He went on to explain the use of books as a way to help readers navigate diverse topics and emotions — from gratitude to grief, bullying to blended families, loneliness to LGBTIQ.
By definition (thank you Google!) bibliotherapy is “the use of books as therapy in the treatment of mental or psychological disorders”. But, in reality, it’s a simple science of harnessing the health benefits that come from reading books.
There are endless case studies, news articles and personal success stories about the ‘superpowers’ of reading — these include: boosting concentration, improving memory muscle, and reducing stress. One study found reading books might help you live longer! And some* say reading makes you more attractive to prospective lovers!!
*ok, ok, maybe that’s just my view on the matter. Hello, @hotdudesreading
Anyway... back to bibliotherapy.
The science behind reading books as therapy is more than just maintaining a healthy lifestyle. It is about engaging in a purposeful act.
“A book may be a stimulant or a sedative or an irritant or a soporific. The point is that it must do something to you, and you ought to know what it is. A book may be of the nature of a soothing syrup or it may be of the nature of a mustard plaster.” — The New Yorker
Put simply, when you read a book under the banner of bibliotherapy you make a choice to read for a specific reason. That reason could be to learn something new, or to inspire creativity, or (as intended by bibliotherapy in its purest form) it could be to ease a physical pain, or to help you sleep. The point is ‘you ought to know’ the reason before you even open the cover!
In The Little Paris Bookshop (shameless plug for the #Year33ReadingList) Parisian bookseller, Jean Perdu, has a knack for knowing which book a customer must read to ‘ease the suffering of the soul’. From his floating bookstore, aptly called the ‘Literary Apothecary’, he sells novels to customers as medicine.
“We all live in wishableness,’ she said. ‘Each in a different kind.” - Samy, The Little Paris Bookshop
Serendipitously, I read the The Little Paris Bookshop with the goal of curing my wanderlust. And it worked! I was recently forced to spend a week of my Summer holidays confined to a hospital bed (immobile thanks to a fractured knee) and so, without anything much else to do, I chose to read something that would help me escape the depressingly white walls of the cardiology ward. A ‘sun cradle’ (aka the sea) in the south of France was the perfect distraction to the pain of not being able to physically travel and, by the end, I felt like I had lived a Summer abroad.
Sadly, we don’t all live in the land of French and fanciful fiction. And we can’t rely on serendipity for every book choice. So, without access to our own Jean Perdu, how can we possibly know what a book will do to us?
Fortunately, “shelf-help” exists!
Most people who work in libraries and bookstores consider themselves experts in prescribing a good book. I know I am always happy to make recommendations to friends, family, colleagues (and random strangers!).
And, failing your local library or bookshop, you can always book a bibliotherapy session with a professional bibliotherapist (yes, it’s a real job!).
Both the School of Life London and the School of Life Melbourne offer consultations under the tag line “life’s too short for bad books” claiming to prescribe books that “have the power to enchant, enrich and inspire” (I am secretly adding this experience to my #travelinglibrarian bucket-list as I type!).
But, if you’re not keen on traveling to the U.K. or Australia in the name of therapy, you can always self-medicate!
Authors (and bibliotherapist royalty!) Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin have published a collection of books to satisfy the ‘you ought to know’ requirement of bibliotherapy.
Suitably titled ‘The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies’ (another shameless plug for the #Year33ReadingList) it is the ultimate companion to heal your literary ailments — from lovesickness to high blood pressure and all age specific woes — here are just a few of my favourite excerpts:
READ The Price of Salt by Patricia HighSmith
- Determinedly chasing after a woman even when she’s a nun
READ In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje
- Broken Heart
READ Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
- Being a Control Freak
READ The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
- Hating Your Nose
READ Perfume: The story of a murderer by Patrick Suskind
- Giving up smoking
READ Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins
READ The Empress of Ice Cream by Anthony Capella
- High Blood Pressure
READ The Waves by Virginia Woolf
READ The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M Cain
AND, my personal favourite (because I really want to to live to 100+ years of age!)
- Being Over One Hundred
READ Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne