We’ve all had that experience – when the exact book we need just happens to come along at the right time. Maybe it’s a break-up, or a health issue, or just feeling ‘stuck’ in your life, when a book that seems to speak to you and your life situation directly, magically finds its way to your lap. Perhaps it was a friend who insisted, ‘Oh you have to read this book, it really helped me through x, y or z’, or it could have been a chance discovery in a library or a review you read in a magazine. But for all this glorious happenstance, what if there was someone who could prescribe the perfect book for you? Say hello to the bibliotherapist! For some time now, bibliotherapy has been used by the health service to recommend various self-help books as a means of providing psychological therapy for people experiencing emotional difficulties. However, is it possible that fiction can hold similarly helpful insights, while telling a story and reaching our subconscious in a more subtle and entertaining way?
Ceridwen Dovey’s article in The New Yorker, is written around her experience with a bibliotherapist at the London headquarters of the School of Life, which offers innovative courses to help people deal with the daily emotional challenges of existence. Following her session with the bibliotherapist, she was ‘prescribed’ certain books that were relevant to her life situation. After a year of working her way through the reading list, she commented:
‘In a secular age, I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence…’
What’s more, reading has been shown to be very good for our health and well-being. According to the article, studies have shown that readers of fiction tend to be better at empathising with others and that reading can ‘improve social abilities and move us emotionally – prompting changes of self-hood’. Ceridwen concludes:
‘Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm’.
So, if you ever needed a reason to read more and carefully consider your reading choices, bibliotherapy is it! Reading fiction offers us the greatest escape; where we can literally lose ourselves (or our ego at least) in another world of possibility and untold futures. Characters who lodge in our hearts with their feisty attitudes, or their ability to turn a terrible situation into something beauty, can in turn help us to re-frame our own attitudes to a particular situation. Just the very act of taking time out of life to drift away on the prose of a well-crafted book, is a gift to ourselves and an oasis from the demands of modern life.
For those of us who can’t make it to a bibliotherapist, there are plenty of resources online where you can find reading lists and recommendations for every kind of challenge life can throw at you. Here is a list of bibliotherapy books on Goodreads and a mood-boosting list from the Reading Agency and if you have any recommendations of fiction books that helped you through a challenging time, please add them in the comments below.