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.”