A book enters the life of an individual, a deep relation is formed, and the person changes in some significant way as a result of this engagement. Bibliotherapy deals with how and why this happens, and how this process can be put to use in ways which improve our lives as individuals and as social beings.—from What is Bibliotherapy?
The intentional use of reading as a therapeutic method has been around since the 1930’s, perhaps even earlier: the ancient Greeks considered literature psychologically and spiritually powerful and their library doors held signs proclaiming it “a healing place for the soul”.Its basic concept is that reading, like other forms of therapy, can help people resolve complex problems in their lives. After World War II bibliotherapy was used in both general practice and medical care for soldiers with time to fill while recuperating. Bibliotherapeutic groups were also used in psychiatric institutions.
I have to wonder, if it’s so widespread, how come I, a seasoned therapy patient who’s undergone, at various times in my life, talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, bioenergetics, re-evaluation counseling, gestalt, and dance and movement therapy, never even heard the word bibliotherapy? And when I Googled it I found only a few books on the topic.
One book I skimmed, The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You, by Ellen Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, suggests specific books for particular ailments—but I found it superficial and even, in some places, silly. I was stunned that they recommend The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe to help cure agoraphobia. Dunes is the story of a Japanese village whose residents live in houses buried beneath piles of sand that they constantly must sweep their way out of, only to be buried again the next day. It’s an allegory of the futility of life; at least that was my interpretation when I read it as a teenager. I was so disturbed by Dunes that to this day I remember the way I felt reading it some 50 years ago—and the memory still makes me shudder. A cure for agoraphobia? Maybe—but it had a negative effect on me and my growing claustrophobia.
The Guardian UK calls the authors of The Novel Cure “Bibliotherapy’s founders”, according to Robert McCrum, who went to them for his own therapy via literature. Says the Guardian, “Bibliotherapy is the new service offering solace to jaded souls – by revitalising your reading list. We sent six of our writers to find out if it works.” Each writer presented a brief description of a session with one of the practitioners at the “Delightfully Offbeat School of Life” in London, where the service is offered, along with his or her prescribed reading list. The descriptions were amusing, the prescriptions interesting, and I’m sure I’d thoroughly enjoy one of these sessions. Does that make bibliotherapy a valid method of analysis and/or improvement? I have my doubts—and yet, as I said in a guest post for Tolstoy Therapy, I’ve been unwittingly practicing bibliotherapy myself for most of my life, though I didn’t name it.
I suspect that one reason bibliotherapy isn’t more widely known is that, despite a great deal of anecdotal evidence, very little research has been conducted to prove or disprove its effectiveness. It also seems to be more popular in the UK than in the States. From my interactions on Goodreads with the British, I’m learning this happens a lot: a trend that goes viral in the US might leave the Brits cold, or they go crazy for something new that we’ve barely even looked at.
I’m following Tolstoy Therapy, the most interesting blog I’ve yet to find on the subject. You don’t have to commit to heavy self-analysis to enjoy reading about PTSD and literature, book reviews and recommendations, theories on why we enjoy reading fiction, and dozens of other relevant subjects. Check it out.