From the introduction to The Novel Cure:
Whatever your ailment, our prescriptions are simple: a
novel (or two), to be read at regular intervals. Some treatments
will lead to a complete cure. Others will simply offer
solace, showing you that you are not alone. All will offer
the temporary relief of your symptoms due to the power of
literature to distract and transport. Sometimes the remedy
is best taken as an audio book, or read aloud with a friend.
As with all medicines, the full course of treatment should
always be taken for best results.
What is bibliotherapy?
Bibliotherapy is something I have practiced for many years with clients in my private practice of psychology. I love providing my clients with a book recommendation and have them come back in a week or two, pleased that they’ve found some parallel to their lives, found some important insight, or even realize they aren’t alone and that their suffering is really just part of the human experience.
Notably, it doesn’t always have to be a “self-help” kind of book either. It can be a work of fiction, a moving, and poignant memoir or even a historical work. In today’s blog, we’ll concentrate on fiction.
“Creative bibliotherapy” utilizes imaginative literature—novels, short stories, poetry, plays, and biographies—to improve psychological well-being. Through the incorporation of carefully selected literary works, therapists can often guide people in treatment on a journey of self-discovery. This method is most beneficial when people are able to identify with a character, experience an emotional catharsis as a result of this identification, and then gain insight about their own life experiences. From http://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/bibliotherapy
Throughout human history, (well since the invention of the written word) it seems that story telling and reading fiction has always been a fundamental way for people to escape workaday life and immerse themselves into a fantasy world. Reading is a like short vacation getaway from our own troubles, and it’s often described in exactly this way. It’s romanticized as a way to temporarily retreat from our day-to-day, humdrum life and immerse ourselves in a fantastical, imaginational world of new or lost loves, pirates, aliens, time travelers or maybe even ripped bodices in the 16th century! :-O
One of the reasons I really think reading fiction is timeless and valuable for those on life’s exciting and often bumpy journey — is that in many ways the human experience of life is universal. We’re all subject to the same bittersweet reality of life, to all of its sufferings and joys. Maybe reading fiction taps into something deeper inside us? What if it taps into our very humanity; what Jung would have called the “collective unconsious”.
All decent fiction is populated with the archetypes of humanity. Carl Jung wrote:
The archetype concept derives from the often repeated observation that myths and universal literature stories contain well defined themes which appear every time and everywhere. We often meet these themes in the fantasies, dreams, delirious ideas and illusions of persons living nowadays.
Interestingly, Jung first applied the term archetype to literature. He put forward that there were universal patterns and themes in all stories, legends, and myths — regardless of their author, culture or historical period. Jung theorized that a part of every human mind contains a “collective unconscious” shared by all members of the human species, a sort of universal, and primitive kind of memory. Jung believed that the collective unconscious carried our inherited traits, our intuitions and a collection of collective wisdom from humanities past. Interestingly enough some genetics research is starting to show that we do carry some genetic memory from our ancestors. Archetypes can be seen as the eternal, underlying fabric that contains our universal human experience, our ancestral genetic memory. Maybe reading fiction is a way of tapping into, exploring and clarifying our archetypal beliefs and this practice allows us to further understand ourselves and our connection to the rest of humanity?
Here is an article on genetic memory for further reading:
According to Shifra Baruchson-Arbib, (2000):
The concept of using literature for therapeutic and supportive purposes has been known since ancient times. The Ancient Greeks called their libraries “The Healing Place for the Soul”; Muslim physicians encouraged patients in hospitals to read the Koran; Christians drew strength and comfort from the Holy Scriptures; and Jews never separated from their Prayer Book and the Book of Psalms. However, bibliotherapy did not become established as a concept until the 20th century.
The research on bibliotherapy dates all the way back to 1937 when scientist, civil rights pioneer and librarian Sadie Peterson Delaney used a form of bibliotherapy in her extensive work at the VA Hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama. Elizabeth Pomeroy, director of the Veterans Administration Library Service, published the results of Delaney’s research on the value of bibliotherapy at VA hospitals. The findings of this research showed that reading helped those in the VA Hospitals experience fuller and more meaningful lives.
In the February 1938 issue of Opportunity magazine, Delaney described the VA patients:
Here minds long imprisoned by lethargy are awakened… And once again he is alive with enthusiasm and joy derived from activity.
In 2012, researchers at Ohio State University examined what happened to people while reading a fictional story and discovered that readers found themselves feeling the emotions, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses of the fictional characters as if they were their own – a phenomenon the researchers describe as “experience-taking:
Experience-taking can be a powerful way to change our behavior and thoughts in meaningful and beneficial ways” and “Experience-taking changes us by allowing us to merge our own lives with those of the characters we read about, which can lead to good outcomes
In 2010, Ahmadipour, Avand, & Mo’menpour implemented a small study of bibliotherapy’s use as a tool for helping those with depression and found that bibliotherapy was helpful in improving depressive symptoms to some degree. And that,
In the face-to-face interview at the end of the period the subjects told that reading such books helped them to know themselves, their problem and their surroundings better.
Now where to start? What to read?
The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud, & Susan Elderkin is wonderful place to find some ideas, the authors write:
It’s tempting to see books the way we see gadgets: that we need the very latest, most up-to-date version. But just because a novel is new doesn’t mean it’s any good; indeed, with a new novel being published every three minutes, the chances that it’s good are actually rather low. Far better to wait and see if a novel stands the test of time, and in the meantime read one that’s already proved itself to be worth reading. Because the art of rereading is a neglected one, and arguably even more important than the act of reading the first time around.
The Novel Cure also offers a list of hundreds of different books and how they may help you deal with a loss, a depression or with the stresses of life.
Another good way to start reading to feel better is to ask your friends, coworkers and family if any books have affected and/or helped them navigate their lives? Another way is to find a therapist that practices bibliotherapy and get some suggestions and direction from them — most especially if you are dealing with something more serious than the “blues” — like a mental health issue like clinical depression or strong anxiety.
The important thing, maybe, is to start. Crack a good book. Find that escape, find that route into a different fictional world that might even help you find clarity, meaning and understanding in your “real” life.
One caution though,
In “Solution Focused Therapy” one of the modes of psychotherapy I practice, there are two important guides:
If it’s working, do more of it.
If it’s not working, do something different.
The same thing applies to trying reading to improve your mood.
Reading can be emotional for some people and if it worsens your mood, or if a specific genre of reading or even a specific book makes you feel worse — stop doing it and try something else or even talk to a mental health professional if you need to.
Or, secondly, if you struggle with getting “out into the world” effectively and reading makes you even more isolated…. it may not be a good choice to hide away reading rather than interacting in the “real” world.
Ahmadipour, T., Avand, F., & Mo’menpour, S. (2012). Bibliotherapy on Depressed University Students: A Case Study. Studies in Literature and Language, 4(2), 49.
Anderson, H. (2015, January 6). Bibliotherapy: can you read yourself happy? Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20150106-can-you-read-yourself-happy
Ella Berthoud, Susan Elderkin (2013) The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You. Penguin Press
Bibliotherapy. from http://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/bibliotherapy
Gubert, B. K. (1993). Sadie Peterson Delaney: Pioneer Bibliotherapist. American Libraries, 24(2), 124-125. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25632815?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
Pomeroy, Elizabeth. “Bibliotherapy-A Study and Results of Hospital
Library Service,” Medical Bulletin of the Veterans Administration, 13:360-364,
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