Can good books help to improve our mental health? Ceridwen Dovey, writing earlier this year for the New Yorker, suggests so, invoking the term bibliotherapy as the practice of matching readers with quality fiction to help them cope with life’s ups and downs. Here’s how she introduces the term:
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 . . . in the basement of his church, from where he dispenses reading recommendations with healing value.
. . . Today, bibliotherapy takes many different forms, from literature courses run for prison inmates to reading circles for elderly people suffering from dementia.
Dovey cites studies suggesting that reading good literature can positively effect one’s emotional health. She became exposed to bibliotherapy through a course at The School of Life, a London-based adult education center. Her instructor, Ella Berthoud, co-authored with Susan Elderkin The Novel Cure, From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You (2013). The book includes alphabetical listings of emotional states, health issues, and challenging life events accompanied by book recommendations for each.
If you’re angry, for example, Berthoud and Elderkin recommend Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. If you’re searching for happiness, they tout Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. If you’re dealing with emotional scars, they suggest F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night and Antonya Nelson’s Bound.
I must confess that I am not the right person to assess bibliotherapy as a healing practice, at least if the book lists are limited to higher end novels and classic literature. My own leisure reading leans heavily toward history, sports, and mystery and suspense. While I was pleased to see two of Stephen King’s books recommended in The Novel Cure (The Stand and The Shining), there were lots of titles I’ve never heard of in the listings.
Nevertheless, I’m enough of an avid reader to know how books can influence our moods for the better. Bibliotherapy may not be a replacement for more formal healing and mental health modalities, but it may merit, umm, a place on your shelf.