I’m a sucker for a ‘Reading Makes you Happy’ headline (but yes, it really does) so when I chanced on the term bibliotherapy, I was hooked.
Bibliotherapy is therapy involving reading specific texts with the purpose of healing. That is, narrative fiction, or poems. My understanding, in the most simple terms, is that the reader identifies with a character, watches their struggles and difficulties from a safe distance, and of course, sees the resolution and can maybe apply some lessons learned, or at least feel the benefit of universalisation (others finding themselves in similar situations). As with music, places and smells, the memory of where and when I read certain books, and the impact they made at the time, has long outlived my memory of characters’ names and specific details, so I’m not at all surprised at the link between reading to improve mental health.
If you’re an avid reader, like me, and you’ve always been a reader, you may have been inadvertently practising Bibliotherapy all of your reading life. Which books do you return to for cheering-up, making you feel more grounded, distraction? I don’t necessarily mean self-help books (though I’m sure there’s a place for them too). I mean the classics and the not-so classics, and any books in fact, which you read for pleasure. When I began to investigate, I found numerous articles, podcasts, websites (here’s one I especially liked) practitioners, actual Bibliotherapists who will prescribe you a personal reading list. I accumulate reading lists all the time! How wonderful to have one prescribed!
Recently, I was introduced to The Poetry Pharmacy books (William Sieghart) – since 2014, this publisher and editor has been ‘prescribing’ poems to individuals, and now has two books divided into sections with headings like ‘Strength and Healing’ and ‘Conflict and Resolution.’ There’s even a shop – look online! All very lovely, but I prefer to lose myself in a novel.
I rarely re-read books. When I do, I find myself returning to The Enchanted April (Elizabeth Von Armin) although more recently I Capture the Castle (Dodie Smith) has become my feel-good ‘re-read’ book of choice. Or Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole, of course, to make me laugh. These are definitely ‘comfort books’ – there is nothing too difficult in any of them. They are gentle and upbeat enough for when I don’t feel like managing huge emotions or issues. A Christmas Carol is the only Dickens I return to regularly, and I loved all of Thomas Hardy’s books, especially Tess of the d’Urbervilles, but have never dared return, in case I was disappointed, or I found all the emotion too much, too depressing.
I also re-read children’s books for my own pleasure (a result of twenty-five years in teaching, and maybe a different blogpost): Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights, recently Eoin Colfer’s wonderful Artemis Fowl, and anything by David Almond or John Boyne.
Samantha Ellis, in her autobiographical and feminist book How to be a Heroine, revisits her favourites (mine too, plus new ones for my ‘to read’ list) with a focused and critical adult eye, and writes about the good and bad surprises. Her comment that Tess is, ‘not a victim, she’s tough and a realist,’ and that Hardy ‘tied himself in knots trying to show the plight of a poor Victorian woman while trying to make her feisty…’ has encouraged me to make a tentative return to my most favourite of his novels after almost forty years. Watch this space!
I’ve also been dipping into The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin – I’m currently busy looking up everything I’ve ever read and what it’s ‘good for.’ Tess for example, has two listings: one about resisting the temptation to ‘spill the beans’ (she trusts Angel and confesses about Alec, with appalling results) and one in the ‘top ten novels to make you weep.’ (Even Hardy cried when he killed Tess off, apparently!) There is enough new reading-list material in this book to last me indefinitely, so I may not have much re-reading time.
Which books do you return to, and why?