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Are You in Need of Bibliotherapy?

Can reading fiction solve your deepest psychological problems?

Jenni Ogden
Source: Jenni Ogden

If you are reading this, my guess is that you’re a book addict like me. In her book Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, Jane Smiley wrote that “Many people, myself among them, feel better at the mere sight of a book.” (Whether the mere sight of a Kindle has the same effect is not known!)

But what is it about a book that gives it that allure? Reading nonfiction is easy to understand; we learn facts from nonfiction, whether it is a rollicking historical account of the life of Henry VIII or an exciting new theory in neuroscience. If we want to check out ways to build a shed, grow organic vegetables, or decrease our anxiety, we can browse the shelves or online stores for the right self-help book. (How to choose, however, is not so easy given the multiple thousands of such books out there.)

However, if your idea of bliss is a good novel, have you ever wondered why you are willing—and indeed eager—to spend so much of your precious time reading made-up stories about fictional characters? "It’s entertainment," you might reply, "It's a way to escape from the realities of daily stresses." Therapeutic it may be—but hardly the stuff of serious therapy, surely? Think again.

The idea of reading as a healing activity is not new; apparently, King Ramses II of Egypt had a special chamber for his books; above the door were the words “House of Healing for the Soul.” Sigmund Freud incorporated literature into his psychoanalysis practice at the end of the nineteenth century. Medical professionals and psychologists have been "prescribing" books for their patients to read for a hundred years or more. But it was more as an adjunct to other treatments rather than a treatment in itself.

The term bibliotherapy—the art of using books to aid people in solving the issues they are facing— was first used in 1916 by Samuel Crothers. After that, in the U.S. (and a little later in the U.K.), training programs in bibliotherapy were established, usually connected with medical schools and hospitals.

In 2007, the philosopher Alain de Botton co-founded the School of Life in London, with the aim of developing emotional intelligence through culture. It included a bibliotherapy service, with bibliotherapists Ella Berthoud, Simona Lyons, and Susan Elderkin offering face-to-face or remote sessions to explore patients' relationship with books and the issues that are pressing on them (from grief, anxiety, or depression; to preparing for retirement or a job change; to a desire to find more meaning in life.) They then prescribe a list of books that are intended to enrich and inspire the patient, as well as speak to their special problems.

In an article in The New Yorker published in June of 2015, Ceridwen Dovey eloquently describes how effective this process was for her, even though she utilized their services only because she was given a gift certificate for a remote session.

Although bibliotherapists sometimes prescribe philosophy, poetry, or nonfiction books, novels are more common. Why is fiction more therapeutic? Research has shown that literary fiction enhances our ability to empathize with others; to put ourselves into another’s shoes; to become more intuitive about other people’s feelings (as well as our own); and to self-reflect on our problems as we read about and empathize with a fictional character who is facing similar problems.

When we find ourselves weeping with (or for) the character in the story, we are also weeping for ourselves—it can be a sort of catharsis. When our character finds happiness in the end, we think that, perhaps, we can as well. When the story drops us into a hurricane, we learn from it—and if we are ever faced with a real one, it will not be an entirely new experience. We may discover ourselves coping in ways that we can only have learned from that novel we read years before.

So why is reading a book more therapeutic than watching the film of the same story? A good film may, of course, also have therapeutic properties, just like a good book. But in general, our minds and our imaginations are more engaged when reading because we need to fill in so much that is not specifically put into words.

Indeed, books that have too much detail tend to bore us; some of the pleasures of reading an engrossing novel include the union of our imagination with the author’s, and to go off on dreaming tangents where we become the character or imagine ourselves in similar situations.

A film moves too fast for this—and besides, we don’t have to imagine how the characters or locations look and sound. We’re stuck with what is on the screen; this can make it harder to put ourselves in the characters' heads. If what you desire is to be kissed by George Clooney, then watching a movie he is in might be a more effective means of imagining this. But if what you want is to understand yourself better, you're likely better off reading a novel.

Most of us, when reading for relaxation, like to select our own reading material. Yet there is a danger of becoming too narrow and sticking with what we know, simply because we don’t know that other books exist—books that we would not only love, but also that we would find stimulating, challenging, and therapeutic.

This is where the bibliotherapist can change lives. Like any specialist, they are experts on books and have almost certainly read more extensively, more widely, and more challengingly than most of us.

So if you are struggling with something in your life, think about a one-off bibliotherapy session—followed by months or years of reading—rather than months of weekly therapy sessions with a cognitive psychologist or psychotherapist.

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