Bibliotherapy is a very broad term for the ancient practice of encouraging reading for therapeutic effect.

The first use of the term is usually dated to a jaunty 1916 article in The Atlantic Monthly, “A Literary Clinic.” In it, the author describes stumbling upon a “bibliopathic institute” run by an acquaintance, Bagster, in the basement of his church, from where he dispenses reading recommendations with healing value. “Bibliotherapy is…a new science,” Bagster explains. “A book may be a stimulant or a sedative or an irritant or a soporific. The point is that it must do something to you, and you ought to know what it is. A book may be of the nature of a soothing syrup or it may be of the nature of a mustard plaster.” To a middle-aged client with “opinions partially ossified,” Bagster gives the following prescription: “You must read more novels. Not pleasant stories that make you forget yourself. They must be searching, drastic, stinging, relentless novels.” (George Bernard Shaw is at the top of the list.) Bagster is finally called away to deal with a patient who has “taken an overdose of war literature,” leaving the author to think about the books that “put new life into us and then set the life pulse strong but slow.”

In a recent exchange with Chicken Lady we mentioned Ella Berthould and Susan Elderkin’s book The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies. Serendipitously, we’ve just come across this wonderful article by the Australian novelist Ceridwen Dovey* in The New Yorker in which we learned that there is actually a school of bibliotherapy associated with Alain de Botton’s School of Life, where you can have online sessions with bibliotherapists. You can even give someone a gift of a bibliotherapy session, which is what happened to Dovey herself.

Gert’s as guilty as anyone else of avoiding books she finds too painful or challenging and of indulging in comfort re-reads of books she knows inside out, but these days at least she’s a bit more aware of the need to choose. As Elderkin says,

If you actually calculate how many books you read in a year—and how many that means you’re likely to read before you die—you’ll start to realize that you need to be highly selective in order to make the most of your reading time.

And with that in mind, it’s a pity that readers seem to be choosing from a smaller and smaller pool of similar books, usually those most-hyped. “Must read’ books, it seems,  are those that everyone else is reading, not books that will really do something for you.

One thing you should certainly read, right now, is Dovey’s article. Among other enllghtenments it tells us, courtesy of Berthould and Elderkin’s work,  that the  greatest fears of Italians are  “impotence,” “fear of motorways,” and “desire to embalm”, while the Dutch are worried about “having too high an opinion of your child”. For Indians it’s public urination and obsession with cricket, while Germans nominated “hating the world” and “hating parties.”

* see our reviews of  Blood Kin   and Only The Animals

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9 thoughts on “Bibliotherapy

  1. What a great dog! Haven’t had a chance to read the New Yorker article yet, but guess I must make it a point to do so. That is, after I critique this 20–page essay about rock bands (creative non-fiction) for tomorrow’s workshop, and find a page at the beginning of something I’ve written (also for the workshop — am tempted to use a haibun or flash fiction). School, after 50 years mostly away, is much more manageable at the moment than I anticipated, but the tough parts are yet to come. Here’s a link to today’s post on Wheatavore about the experience (there are several earlier Wheatavore posts as well — it’s easier for me to use than WordPress at this point):

  2. That’s funny that you mention thinking about how many books we will read before we die and setting a bar for standard using that rubric. Just yesterday I opened a book by a crime writer I like and was almost immediately (first few pages) repelled by its crudity (not usual for the author). I performed the years left x books read by year and boom, the book hit the rubbish bin.

    1. It’s the 100th anniversary of the Australian disaster at Gallipolli this year and we are well and truly suffering from an overdose of war literature. And if it doesn’t thrill you yo;re unpatriotic (or not on “Team Australia” as our asinine Prime Minister puts it).

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