Readers and non-readers alike understand that life involves more ups and downs than an English umbrella. Regardless of country of residence, employment status, age, and other variables, no one is immune to the trials and tribulations that characterise the human existence. Within this, however, there is undeniably a spectrum of experience. And, at the most extreme end of this spectrum, we find those suffering from various forms of mental illness and/or behavioural disorders. It is within this context that I first came across the notion of bibliotherapy (or ‘reading to cure life’s ailments’). This post has been hanging around in my mind for quite some time. I have come to be a passionate believer in the power of bibliotherapy. But there was no way that this post could be written without touching on the personal. As such, I wanted to be sure that I was fully ready to write it and share my own experience with bibliotherapy. However, I want to preface this post by saying that, regardless of my own experiences, I am not a doctor, clinician, or in any way medically trained. I would also say that, when in any doubt about whether you suffer with a diagnosable condition, definitely see your doctor as a first step.
I am, like many people out there, a life-long sufferer of severe anxiety. It was not, however, until this past year that I was finally diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD). While this diagnosis came as no surprise, it forced a rethink in the way that I reflected on my mood and attitude towards everyday life. Books have, for me, always been a source of solace and escape. When things get hard, they are a steady and constant companion. But it was only within the context of GAD that I began to think about books as a potentially effective cure (or, at the very least, a means of reducing the impact of symptoms). The notion of bibliotherapy is not novel (if you’ll pardon the pun) and is becoming increasingly well-established. London’s School of Life offers sessions with bibliotherapists as a means of “guid[ing] you to those amazing but often elusive works of literature, that have the power to enchant, enrich and inspire.” Belief in bibliotherapy has also inspired a number of other bloggers to take up the cause – the fantastic Therapy Through Tolstoy has been an amazing resource for me over the past few months and offers an insightful and educated take on books as a complement to therapy/self-care.
Bibliotherapy taps into literature’s universal characteristics – the capacity of books to offer unique exploration of complex aspects of the human experience, and to inspire and inform us at various stages of our lives. Every book is akin to a fingerprint – while perhaps following in the footsteps of a preceding work, it offers a perspective or insight that ascribes it a character of its own. At its most powerful, literature has the ability to cast a different light on our own lives, by encouraging us to see the world through the eyes and experiences of another. At its foundation, bibliotherapy rests upon a belief in the power of literature to change our lives. This is a belief that my own knowledge and experience has only confirmed.
Faced with a diagnosed disorder but unsure how to move forward, I found myself naturally turning back to my bookshelves for an answer. At first it was purely driven by that discrete yearning to escape and experience the feelings of relaxation that tend to flood me the minute I open a book. I soon began to understand, however, that reading was offering me a tangible easing of my symptoms. Pick the right book in the right moment and you do more than escape – you carry the literary-inspired transformation with you, long after you have closed the pages. This may sound slightly unbelievable. And I would in no way claim that the simple act of reading the right books solves all problems. I still get anxious. And I still get sad, lonely, and overwhelmed, just like everyone else. What I do claim, however, is that consciously choosing books in light of your current predicament (from the shadows of depression, to the pain of a broken heart) can offer you a demonstrable easing of your symptoms. My personal exploration of bibliotherapy led me to a two tier conclusion in dealing specifically with anxiety – choosing books either for a pure and unadulterated mood lift (in my case P.G. Wodehouse proved an excellent selection), or choosing them for relaxation as a product of easy, beautiful prose (any work by Gabriel Garcia Marquez fits the bill; Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities also proved a perfect dose of medicine).
Whether objectively trivial or suffocating, life’s problems never feel relative to those by whom they are experienced. When our difficulties leave us plagued with questions and no answers, it can be lonely and terrifying. What literature offers us is an opportunity to understand that we are not alone, that our story is one in a long line, and that there are as many solutions as there are problems. Bibliotherapy is not the only answer – but literature undoubtedly provides an excellent complement to our journey through life, alongside both the peaks and troughs of existence. For many out there, recourse to books has been a conscious choice to assist them, to ease the strain just a little. My experience has only confirmed what I have known since I first picked up a book – that literature has a tremendous power, rooted in its pure humanity. Consciously tapping into this power is, perhaps, one way to ensure that we live a connected and satisfying life.
A Starting Point: I would recommend taking a look at The Novel Cure: An A to Z of Literary Remedies by Susan Elderkin and Ella Berthoud. Also see the Therapy Through Tolstoy blog, linked to above.