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Bibliotherapy: Who Knew?

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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. book piles

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.

ladybugheart2I 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.













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Bibliotherapy (Photo credit: puptoes74)

Hey Everybody! You can read my Guest Post titled Spending Time in the Four-Gated City on Therapy Through Tolstoy, a charming blog devoted to the subject of bibliotherapy. If you don’t know what bibliotherapy is, visit and all shall be revealed. I just recently stumbled on the term myself, and when I checked it out I was inspired to write the post.

Hope you like it.

A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood

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Since moving circa 2007 from the Piedmont area to East Oakland, I’ve complained constantly–about trash in the street, broken sidewalks (fell 3X and counting), gangs (according to  newspapers; I’ve never actually seen any), freeway dirt floating through the window and onto my floors, hardly any trees to offer shade and oxygen. Lately, though, I’ve begun to enjoy certain aspects of the ‘hood, namely, feeling more comfortable in poverty than when I lived among wealthier neighbors.

It’s an interesting dynamic, and, I’ll hazard an educated guess, one that’s particular to life under capitalism. When those around you have more or less the same amount of money and a similar lifestyle, it isn’t quite as painful as being the only poor relation in a family of success stories. A lot of the people around here are worse off than I am. Some are homeless. I go out every morning to buy or grub ONE cigarette (that’s a whole other story; I’ve been keeping to one a day), and from every direction mothers converge wheeling strollers, their toddlers and older kids on each side: they’re on their way to the school on the next  block. On most corners guys hang out greeting the  families and wishing them a good day. (I fervently hope they’re the nice guys they seem to be, and not child molesters). Customers go in and out of the corner store, and if I haven’t scored one from any of the guys, I watch to see who buys smokes. On the days that I have money I buy a pack and distribute them. I’ve become one of the street regulars. I know people who’d be mortified rather than admit to this, but I like it. I feel connected. I feel at home here. It may not be much, but it’s my ‘hood.

Playing By The Rules: Check Your Premises

Politicians are always squawking madly that America works best when her citizens “Play by the Rules” (PBTR). The rules to which they refer are, at their most basic level, work hard, save your money, and don’t get into debt (that last one might be out of date). Depending on how disciplined you are or can be, more complex levels of the rules include heterosexual marriage, children, home ownership, and a zillion other lifestyle tweaks that add up to being a good clean-cut American citizen. Those who PBTR are rewarded, primarily, with enough money to make their lives comfortable or even luxurious. They can afford to buy  fun stuff—boats and vans and summer homes—travel to the far reaches of the globe, and go on adventurous vacations like jungle safaris, parachuting, and other wild thrills. Or they can simply accumulate lots of jewelry or cars or let the cash itself pile up.

Vice Presidential candidate Paul Ryan recently made a rather shocking statement: he said, expressing hostility towards them, that some people don’t want to PBTR. They don’t. Want. To play. By the rules.

I’ve been mulling this over since he said it, and you know what? He’s absolutely right! A lot of us do not want to PBTR. I am one of them. I’ve lived my entire life far outside the rules—consciously and intentionally.

I am a writer. Pre-Internet it was nearly impossible to make money writing, and even today, most of us cannot, do not, and will not work 9 to 5 jobs out of which we spin hot careers. We already have hot careers: as writers. Unlike most careers, however—except for the plum jobs like corporate newsletter editor and a very few others—writing doesn’t support its practitioners immediately, if ever. Writers have to find ways to support our careers until they support us. Sometimes they never do, and we surrender to some other occupation. Or we just surrender, period, and litter the landscape with our exhausted bodies. Or we keep on keepin’ on, usually unhappily, our lives a study in subversion of the rules and its deprivations. This is, of course, true not only of writers but of all artists: photographers, painters, sculptors, and other creative geniuses. We comprise a sizeable chunk of the American populace that doesn’t PBTR. This has always been the case, and it always will be.

Then there are those whose art is creative living: there were more of these back in the late 60’s, called “hippies.” I knew people who took the hippie lifestyle a lot further than I did: living on the land, sometimes communally, in teepees, cabins, and tents. My kids and I (usually) lived in a traditional house, though not strictly in PBTR circumstances.  For awhile we lived on a hilltop buried in snow half the year, in one of five cozy little bungalows huddled in a protective semi-circle, in each of which lived a single mother and one or two kids. I was the only adult with a real job—secretarial of course—to supplement my paltry child support check. I remember one of the women, a conservative’s worst nightmare, who claimed it was more principled to let the government support mothers via welfare so they’d stay home with their kids than for her to leave them every day for a job. As a feminist striving for independence, I found this rather shocking—but as time went by, I came to see her point of view as viable. I still do. In order to see it differently, I first had to check my premises—an idea promoted incessantly by Paul Ryan’s mentor, Ayn Rand.

“Check your premises” was, in my opinion, the most sensible thing Rand ever said—but Paul Ryan evidently didn’t pay attention to this piece of Randian philosophy. He hasn’t checked the premises that underlie the practice of playing by the rules. When he says some people don’t want to, he’s assuming evil premises, one of which is that if you don’t PBTR, you’re lazy. You’re not working hard. Nothing could be further from the truth, at least in my experience: there were times when I held three “part time” jobs that added up, both in hours and muscle power, to more than one. Sometimes I cleaned houses, and worked like a dog. And yes, sometimes I got lucky–like when I collected unemployment–and I got to take it easy.

And what’s so terrible about enjoying life? What’s wrong with spending your days playing music with your kids, or taking them ice skating? What’s so terrible about having a little bit of fun? Come on, tell us, Mr. Ryan: what’s wrong with having fun? Why, when you accuse us of not PBTR, do you attach evil premises to the practice? When I—or another artist or hippie–says someone doesn’t want to PBTR, it’s just a statement of fact. The underlying premise is neutral, with no value judgment attached. Really.

If not playing by the rules is simply a statement of fact without moral value, where does it leave us? At the end of the American Way of Life? Is that what Paul Ryan and those who believe so fervently in PBTR are afraid of? I don’t have an answer. I just think it would be a damn good idea if everyone, especially the people in power, would take a minute or two to check their premises.

The Tsuris of Gelt

The Tsuris of Gelt

Until I was 12, c. 1958, my family lived first in the Jewish American heartland, the Bronx, and then in an immigrant enclave of Queens. During those years I never once heard any denigration of Jewish people. If that seems impossible, I concede I might just have forgotten it—but I honestly don’t remember a single slur, anti-Semitic incident, or hurtful comment.

When we moved to Long Island, all that changed. Suddenly people were asking me if I rolled around the aisles in synagogue. Jewish in spirit only, we didn’t go to synagogue, so I had no idea if people rolled around in them. Nor did I know why I was being asked. On the first day of school, my sister and I were called kikes, and when I asked her what it meant she, staring straight ahead, hissed furiously, “Shut up!”

As for money—gelt—I didn’t know that, as a Jew, I was supposed to love it more than life itself. I noticed that most adults wanted more of it, but this was true of them all, Jewish or not. I didn’t know I was famously “cheap,” especially since I was always buying my friends candy and cigarettes (or, more often, shoplifting and distributing them). I didn’t recognize an anti-Semitic remark when I heard one; in fact, the stuff my new friends said seemed really stupid, so I pretended to be dumber than I was in order to fit in.

On the way home from the bus stop one day, two girls and I were speculating as to what we were each probably having for dinner; I said I expected Campbell’s soup. I didn’t realize that in their households, which were poorer than mine, soup was frequently served for the full meal; in our family it was just a first course. I told the girls that my mother added extra water because there were five in my family, causing them to start laughing and exchange knowing glances. I stared at them blankly. What were they laughing at? Years later I got it: they thought my parents were cheapskate Jews and we lived on diluted soup. At the time I understood none of these cryptic clues about miserly Jews.

I don’t know why or how it happened, but when I finally put the pieces together and saw what they thought I was–a money-hungry Jew–I had a visceral reaction. It was as if I literally reached down inside myself and flicked a switch: then and there I became someone who would never, ever, make money  a priority. I would never, ever do anything, purely for the sake of making money. I would never base any of my choices on their financial ramifications. I tell you, I kept these vows more faithfully than I’ve stuck to anything else in my life. I was a Jew for sure—but I’d show them a Jew could be generous, or not even care about money. I was a Jew, but never, by g-d, a Jew who loved money!

I trained myself to despise the filthy stuff. Any time I accidentally got my hands on a substantial amount of cash, I spent it as quickly as possible. Other people sell stuff they no longer want, but I give old cars, furniture, and electronic gadgets away when I upgrade. Bills get crunched up and stuffed carelessly in my purse;  coins float around in my pockets, bags, and the cushions of my furniture. I throw pennies away. You’ll never catch me saving money, and the only valuable thing I own is my computer. I take great pride in being unattached to things, so unattached that I break, stain, mar and maim everything I own. I’m proud, on a political level, of not being “materialistic.”

I set out to live my life by these principles. I knew nothing about the way money worked. Stocks and investments were a complete mystery. Even interest on savings was inscrutable. At 24 I left my (Jewish) husband, in part because he was making a lot of money selling life insurance, and using it to buy new suits and fancy cars. Vietnam was raging, rock&roll was in its ascendancy, and I was trotting about my big bright kitchen, supervising pots on the automatic pudding stirrer and staying up late to oversee my miraculous self-cleaning oven. When I began smoking pot and saw I’d turned into the ultimate Suburban Housewife, I swore to get out. I took enough child support from my ex- to get by, but not a penny of alimony. By then I fancied myself a Marxist and a feminist, and I was going to be a self-supporting independent woman.

We all know how that turned out.

I don’t know about other people, but to me it seems natural, at 66, to look back and analyze the narrative of my life. I admit that, being obsessive, I might’ve gone overboard; I’ve been doing this for at least ten years already–but what the hell, I write the same way, constantly revising. The more I revise, the more clarity I gain. Thinking and writing about  how being Jewish affected my relationship to money, I feel pretty foolish for being such an idiot–but I also see the damage done by anti-semitism. No, I wasn’t so unfortunate as to live in Nazi Germany, nor have I been prevented from doing anything significant because of my religion/ethnicity. But fighting against nasty stereotypes helped push me into poverty and placed serious limitations on my life. I’m not making excuses for myself, believe me; I’m just examining all sides of the issue.

Now I live in a dirt poor neighborhood, and I’m constantly being hit up on the street. People assume I’ve got money–but more than half my clothes were inherited from a wealthy  friend who left me her Fifth Avenue wardrobe when she died of lung cancer, and my teeth look good because I sacrificed car ownership to get them fixed. I guess I look like a stereotypical American Jew : loaded. Well, get a load of this:  the other day I walked over to the Alameda County Food Bank to pick up the fixin’s for dinner. Of course, I still cook like a suburban party hostess, so the casserole I threw together was excellent—except I kept wishing I had a can of Campbell’s mushroom soup to toss into it. Like they say, you don’t know what you got till it’s gone.