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A Case for Bibliotherapy

"A stellar book," says the reader who finished it this morning, and sent this image

Writing in the New Yorker, Ceridwen Dovey says that maybe instead of going to a therapist, you should get a library card. Dovey was sent to a “bibliotherapist” — someone who recommends a personalized course of reading to help one deal with one’s problems and challenges — and came away surprised by how much it helped. Excerpts:

I worked my way through the books on the list over the next couple of years, at my own pace—interspersed with my own “discoveries”—and while I am fortunate enough to have my ability to withstand terrible grief untested, thus far, some of the insights I gleaned from these books helped me through something entirely different, when, over several months, I endured acute physical pain. The insights themselves are still nebulous, as learning gained through reading fiction often is—but therein lies its power. 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. As Woolf, the most fervent of readers, wrote, a book “splits us into two parts as we read,” for “the state of reading consists in the complete elimination of the ego,” while promising “perpetual union” with another mind.

More, about the people who run the London-based bibliotherapy clinic:

They kept recommending novels to each other, and to friends and family, for many years, and, in 2007, when philosopher and fellow Cambridge classmate Alain de Botton was thinking about starting the School of Life, they pitched to him the idea of running a bibliotherapy clinic. “As far as we knew, nobody was doing it in that form at the time,” Berthoud said. “Bibliotherapy, if it existed at all, tended to be based within a more medical context, with an emphasis on self-help books. But we were dedicated to fiction as the ultimate cure because it gives readers a transformational experience.”

Berthoud and Elderkin trace the method of bibliotherapy all the way back to the Ancient Greeks, “who inscribed above the entrance to a library in Thebes that this was a ‘healing place for the soul.’ ” The practice came into its own at the end of the nineteenth century, when Sigmund Freud began using literature during psychoanalysis sessions. After the First World War, traumatized soldiers returning home from the front were often prescribed a course of reading. “Librarians in the States were given training on how to give books to WWI vets, and there’s a nice story about Jane Austen’s novels being used for bibliotherapeutic purposes at the same time in the U.K.,” Elderkin says. Later in the century, bibliotherapy was used in varying ways in hospitals and libraries, and has more recently been taken up by psychologists, social and aged-care workers, and doctors as a viable mode of therapy.

There is now a network of bibliotherapists selected and trained by Berthoud and Elderkin, and affiliated with the School of Life, working around the world, from New York to Melbourne. The most common ailments people tend to bring to them are the life-juncture transitions, Berthoud says: being stuck in a rut in your career, feeling depressed in your relationship, or suffering bereavement. The bibliotherapists see a lot of retirees, too, who know that they have twenty years of reading ahead of them but perhaps have only previously read crime thrillers, and want to find something new to sustain them. Many seek help adjusting to becoming a parent. “I had a client in New York, a man who was having his first child, and was worried about being responsible for another tiny being,” Berthoud says. “I recommended ‘Room Temperature,’ by Nicholson Baker, which is about a man feeding his baby a bottle and having these meditative thoughts about being a father. And of course ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ because Atticus Finch is the ideal father in literature.”

How does this work? Believe it or not, there is a neuroscientific rationale for bibliotherapy:

For all avid readers who have been self-medicating with great books their entire lives, it comes as no surprise that reading books can be good for your mental health and your relationships with others, but exactly why and how is now becoming clearer, thanks to new research on reading’s effects on the brain. Since the discovery, in the mid-nineties, of “mirror neurons”—neurons that fire in our brains both when we perform an action ourselves and when we see an action performed by someone else—the neuroscience of empathy has become clearer. A 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology, based on analysis of fMRI brain scans of participants, showed that, when people read about an experience, they display stimulation within the same neurological regions as when they go through that experience themselves. We draw on the same brain networks when we’re reading stories and when we’re trying to guess at another person’s feelings.

Other studies published in 2006 and 2009 showed something similar—that people who read a lot of fiction tend to be better at empathizing with others (even after the researchers had accounted for the potential bias that people with greater empathetic tendencies may prefer to read novels). And, in 2013, an influential study published in Science found that reading literary fiction (rather than popular fiction or literary nonfiction) improved participants’ results on tests that measured social perception and empathy, which are crucial to “theory of mind”: the ability to guess with accuracy what another human being might be thinking or feeling, a skill humans only start to develop around the age of four.

Of course you should read the whole thing — and you should read more, period.

Those who have read my book How Dante Can Save Your Life will know how profoundly bibliotherapy involving the Divine Comedy helped me. I even cite some of the same neuroscience in the book, because it helped me to understand why Dante’s poetry, and his storytelling, incarnated the lessons I was learning from my therapist and my priest at a deeper level than normal. I felt that I had inhabited the lessons, not just held them in my mind as propositions. And that made a huge difference.

Because it is so comprehensive, I believe that the Commedia is a fantastic general-purpose medicine for one’s maladies. It deals with many particular conditions, especially core ones, like love, justice, desire, and the sources of the self. In fact, I cannot think of a single book I’ve ever read that affected me so deeply, and shone a searchlight so piercingly into the dark places of my heart. The Commedia helps you to diagnose where you have gone wrong in your own path through life by training you to discern your own disordered love, and it also offers you a general technique for re-ordering your loves and making progress out of the “dark wood,” whatever sins brought you there.

Dovey says in her piece that one of the greatest challenges facing bibliotherapists is that there are so many books to choose from, but so few that ordinary readers ever hear about. So, here in this thread, I want to ask you readers to prescribe works of fiction as cures for particular conditions. Don’t simply say, “Read [name] and you’ll get a lot of insight about life.” Name the psychological or spiritual malady and explain why a particular novel might be a cure for it. If it worked for you in the past, tell that story. Give readers who might be suffering from something you’ve dealt with before a reason to read a book that helped you.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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