Are You In Need of Bibliotherapy?

Can reading fiction solve your deepest psychological problems?

Posted Feb 28, 2016

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 Henry VIII or a book on 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 the online stores for the right self-help book. (How to choose 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, a way to escape from the realities of daily stresses, you might reply. Therapeutic, yes, but hardly the stuff of serious therapy, surely?

The idea of reading as a healing activity is not new; apparently King Ramses II of Egypt had a special chamber for his books, and above the door were the words “House of Healing for the Soul.” Sigmund Freud incorporated literature into his psychoanalysis 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 treatment 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, and in the US and a little later in the UK, 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 Skype or phone sessions to explore your relationship with books and the issues that are pressing on you (from grief, anxiety or depression to preparing for retirement or a job change, to a desire to find more meaning in your life.)  They then prescribe a list of books that will enrich and inspire you, and speak to your special problems. In an article in The New Yorker (June, 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 the bibliotherapists sometimes prescribe philosophy, poetry and creative nonfiction books, novels are more common. So 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 simiar problems. When we find ourselves weeping with or for the character in the story, we are also weeping for ourselves; a sort of catharsis. When our character finds happiness in the end, well perhaps so can we. When the story drops us into a hurricane, we learn from that, 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 we don’t have to imagine how the characters or locations look and sound. We’re stuck with what is on the screen, and this makes it harder to put ourselves in their 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, then read a novel.

Most of us, when we read 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 that we would not only love but also find stimulating and 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 and 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 sesions with a cognitive psychologist or psychotherapist!  Perhaps when your partner asks you what you want for your birthday, you can suggest a gift certificate for a bibliotherapy session (and the money to buy the books that are prescribed!) 

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