Prescribing Lit for What Ails Us

Auguste Macke, "Blue Girl Reading"

Auguste Macke, “Blue Girl Reading”

The New Yorker recently published an article right up my alley: “Can Reading Make You Happier.” In case you were wondering, Ceridwen Dovey’s answer is yes.

The article touches on a number of issues that I’ve covered in this blog over the years, including those scientific studies that show great literature increasing brain activity and enhancing empathy and social perception. New to me, however, is what it had to say about bibliotherapy.

Dovey reports on having once received, as a gift, a remote session with bibliotherapist Ella Berthoud. Previous to this, she says, she always felt like reading should have an element of serendipity to it (she quotes Virginia Woolf on this), and she resisted reading books that had been prescribed. She didn’t even know that bibliotherapy was a thing.

Her experience with Berthoud, however, proved to be very positive. First of all, the initial questions were very thought provoking:

In response to the question “What is preoccupying you at the moment?,” I was surprised by what I wanted to confess: I am worried about having no spiritual resources to shore myself up against the inevitable future grief of losing somebody I love, I wrote. I’m not religious, and I don’t particularly want to be, but I’d like to read more about other people’s reflections on coming to some sort of early, weird form of faith in a “higher being” as an emotional survival tactic. Simply answering the questions made me feel better, lighter.

There was some further back-and-forth and then the bibliotherapist made her recommendations:

[The final reading prescription…was filled with gems, none of which I’d previously read. Among the recommendations was The Guide, by R. K. Narayan. Berthoud wrote that it was “a lovely story about a man who starts his working life as a tourist guide at a train station in Malgudi, India, but then goes through many other occupations before finding his unexpected destiny as a spiritual guide.” She had picked it because she hoped it might leave me feeling “strangely enlightened.” Another was The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, by José Saramago: “Saramago doesn’t reveal his own spiritual stance here but portrays a vivid and compelling version of the story we know so well.” Henderson the Rain King, by Saul Bellow, and Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse, were among other prescribed works of fiction, and she included some nonfiction, too, such as The Case for God, by Karen Armstrong, and Sum, by the neuroscientist David Eagleman, a “short and wonderful book about possible afterlives.”

Dovey says that she read the books over the following two years and, while she didn’t need them to help her cope with a loss, she said they helped with a bout of acute physical pain. This raises certain questions about bibliotherapy (more about this in a moment), but she herself came away satisfied.

Researching the history of bibliotherapy, she discovered that the phrase was first used in a 1916 Atlantic Monthly article, “A Literary Clinic.” The article described a “bibliopathic institute” run by someone named Bagster, who asserted that,

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.

I’m struck by Bagster’s advice for “a middle-aged client with ‘opinions partially ossified’”:

You must read more novels. Not pleasant stories that make you forget yourself. They must be searching, drastic, stinging, relentless novels.

Bagster’s top recommendation for this client was George Bernard Shaw, who didn’t write novels but who is certainly stinging and relentles). Then, making Bagster sound like Anne Elliot counseling Benwick in Jane Austen’s Persuasion, the Atlantic article reports that he is

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.”

As an aside, I note that Anne actually counsels Benwick to read less fiction. She recommends the salutary prose by Samuel Johnson over the narrative poetry of Byron and Scott. But that’s a subject for a different day.

Looking into the history of her own bibliotherapist, Dovey reports that Berthoud and her friend Susan Elderkin used fiction to bolster each other prior to beginning their practice. They chose literature rather than self-help books because they regarded the former as providing “a transformational experience”:

As their friendship developed, they began prescribing novels to cure each other’s ailments, such as a broken heart or career uncertainty. “When Suse was having a crisis about her profession—she wanted to be a writer, but was wondering if she could cope with the inevitable rejection—I gave her Don Marquis’s Archy and Mehitabel poems,” Berthoud told me. “If Archy the cockroach could be so dedicated to his art as to jump on the typewriter keys in order to write his free-verse poems every night in the New York offices of the Evening Sun, then surely she should be prepared to suffer for her art, too.” Years later, Elderkin gave Berthoud,who wanted to figure out how to balance being a painter and a mother, Patrick Gale’s novel Notes from an Exhibition, about a successful but troubled female artist.

Berthoud and Elderkin are authors of The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies, which Dovey says “is written in the style of a medical dictionary and matches ailments (“failure, feeling like a”) with suggested reading cures (“The History of Mr. Polly,” by H. G. Wells).” They have also set up a network of bibliotherapists. Here’s what they have concluded from the experiences:

The most common ailments people tend to bring to them are the life-juncture transitions, Berthoud says: being stuck in a rut in your career, feeling depressed in your relationship, or suffering bereavement. The bibliotherapists see a lot of retirees, too, who know that they have twenty years of reading ahead of them but perhaps have only previously read crime thrillers, and want to find something new to sustain them. Many seek help adjusting to becoming a parent. “I had a client in New York, a man who was having his first child, and was worried about being responsible for another tiny being,” Berthoud says. “I recommended Room Temperature, by Nicholson Baker, which is about a man feeding his baby a bottle and having these meditative thoughts about being a father. And of course To Kill a Mockingbird, because Atticus Finch is the ideal father in literature.”

One last note on bibliotherapy: Doves says that it needs to be culture specific. Apparently, there are different versions of The Novel Cure for the 18 different countries in which it has appeared:

[I]n an interesting twist, the contract allows for a local editor and reading specialist to adapt up to twenty-five per cent of the ailments and reading recommendations to fit each particular country’s readership and include more native writers. The new, adapted ailments are culturally revealing. In the Dutch edition, one of the adapted ailments is “having too high an opinion of your own child”; in the Indian edition, “public urination” and “cricket, obsession with” are included; the Italians introduced “impotence,” “fear of motorways,” and “desire to embalm”; and the Germans added “hating the world” and “hating parties.” Berthoud and Elderkin are now working on a children’s-literature version, A Spoonful of Stories, due out in 2016.

I must admit to having mixed feelings about bibliotherapy. Perhaps readers will find this curious since my entire blog is dedicated to showing how literature enhances lives.

I worry, however, about literature coming to seen as purely utilitarian, someone that gets prescribed. While Better Living through Beowulf was set up to counter those who see literature as having no social utility at all—Stanley Fish, for instance—I don’t like to go all the way in the other direction.

My experience with literature is that we don’t know in advance how it is going to effect us and that different people will be impacted in widely diverse ways. One of the delights of literature is this element of surprise. While I can sometimes predict how students will respond to certain works, this is not always the case and they are constantly surprising me in what they take away.

I myself, meanwhile, could never have foreseen that, when I lost my oldest son, I would find deep solace from Beowulf’s battle with Grendel’s mother. It was particularly powerful because it was unexpected. If someone had sent me to Beowulf work for grief counseling, I suspect it would have had less of an impact.

Maybe I just bristle at works with an agenda attached, which I feel negates the free play that is one of literature’s glories. I remember, as a child, reacting strongly against the questions that followed stories in our English textbooks, which seemed designed to preempt my own experience. To this day I refuse to teach literature textbooks that have such questions.

So while I’m all for getting reading suggestions from people and see the value in getting recommendations from people who have read a lot and who have asked me special questions about myself, ultimately I believe that above all we should just read a lot. Like Woolf, I’m all for serendipity. That’s because we can’t ultimately predict the work that will provide just the life saver we need when life hits us between the eyes.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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