For authors of self-help guides, no human problem is too great or too small. Want to become fitter, richer or happier in 2015? There are books for it – shelves upon shelves of them. Hoping for increased efficiency, decisiveness and creativity in the months ahead? There are titles for that too.
As we knuckle down to our New Year’s resolutions, we’ll turn in droves to self-help books, hoping to find our own best selves in their pages. But a book needn’t hector or lecture to leave its imprint. The truth is that all good literature changes us, and a growing body of research suggests you might do better browsing through fiction for support in battling life’s challenges. Think of it less as self-help than ‘shelf help’.
Reading has been proven to sharpen analytical thinking, enabling us to better discern patterns – a handy tool when it comes to the often baffling behaviour of ourselves and others. But fiction in particular can make you more socially able and empathetic. Last year, the Journal of Applied Social Psychology published a paper showing how reading Harry Potter made young people in the UK and Italy more positively disposed towards stigmatised minorities such as refugees. And in 2013, psychologists at the New School for Social Research found that literary fiction enhanced people’s ability to register and read others’ emotions.
We think of novels as places in which to lose ourselves, but when we emerge, we take with us inspiration from our favourite characters. A 2012 study by researchers at Ohio State University found that this process could actually change a reader’s behaviour. In one experiment, participants strongly identifying with a fictional character who overcame obstacles to vote proved significantly more likely to vote in a real election.
They may not promise transformation in seven easy steps, but gripping novels can inform and motivate, short stories can console and trigger self-reflection, and poetry has been shown to engage parts of the brain linked to memory. Sometimes an author helps by simply taking your mind off a problem, immersing you so fully in another’s world and outlook that you transcend yourself, returning recharged and determined.
As Aristotle noted in his Poetics, poetry – by which he meant fiction in general – is more serious than history. While the historian is preoccupied with what happened when, fiction allows us to see what could happen, exercising our imaginations and often our sense of morality along the way.
A story needn’t lift your heart in order to lift your mood. As author Jane Smiley confides in Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, “Many people, myself among them, feel better at the mere sight of a book”. Experiencing the trials and tribulations of a fictional character can even open us up to problems we’ve been ignoring, sparking rewarding conversations – or offering a way into one that’s proving daunting or difficult. And whatever the fix you find yourself in, there’s always a book to remind you that others have been there before, it’s just a question of finding it.
A reading cure
That’s where bibliotherapy comes in. Practised around the world by psychologists, social workers, and counselors along with librarians, it’s become something of a buzzword in the past few years, drawing scholarly researchers and bloggers alike. Alain de Botton’s London-based School of Life even has a quartet of resident ‘bibliotherapists’, including Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, whose book The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies is a thrifty alternative to the school’s £80 ($120) consultations.
Yet the notion of books as remedies for emotional disorders isn’t as new-fangled as you might imagine. The ancient Greeks posted signs above library doors, informing readers that they were entering a healing place for the soul. And in the 19th Century, doctors and psychiatric nurses doled out everything from the Bible to travel literature and works in ancient languages.
Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary first acknowledged bibliotherapy in 1941, defining the term as “the employment of books and the reading of them in the treatment of nervous diseases”, but according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it first popped up in print in 1920, in Christopher Morley’s The Haunted Bookshop.
Set in a world still reeling from World War One, the novel pairs a screwball rom-com involving a young adman and the heiress to a prune empire, with a German plot to blow up the US president. It’s a period piece, really, but its backdrop – a second-hand bookstore in Brooklyn called Parnassus at Home – remains a bibliophile’s paradise, fragrant with the scent of “mellowed paper and leather” and tobacco from the pipe that its owner, Mr Mifflin, puffs away on day and night.
Mifflin is not just a bookseller, though, he’s a “practitioner of bibliotherapy”. As he explains it, “My pleasure is to prescribe books for such patients as drop in here and are willing to tell me their symptoms... There is no one so grateful as the man to whom you have given just the book his soul needed and he never knew it.”
Mifflin already knew what researchers at the University of Sussex have since attempted to quantify: that reading is a more efficacious stress reliever than listening to music, going for a walk or sitting down with a nice cup of tea. After just six minutes with a book – any book – their subjects found stress was reduced by up to 68 per cent. With the right book, that really could be time well spent.
That’s why we’re launching our very own bibliotherapy column. Send us an email to tell us what ails and what irks you, be it broken resolutions or a broken heart, whether you’re feeling lost in life or stuck in your career. I’ll recommend you some books old and new, mostly though not exclusively fiction, that are sure to speak to your predicament, offering insights and encouragement as well as a little escapism. And at the very least, you’ll discover some great new titles. To quote the sign in Mr Mifflin’s bookshop, “Malnutrition of the reading faculty is a serious thing. Let us prescribe for you”.
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