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Saved by the Book: A Brief Introduction to Bibliotherapy

n her book “Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel”, Jane Smiley wrote that “Many people, myself among them, feel better at the mere sight of a book.” Perhaps you are one of those people. I know that I am. I view the books that live on my shelves as dear friends, some even as saviors. Many have come into my life as though coming to my rescue, and I believe they deserve to wear medals of honor. And yet they ask for nothing in return. Nothing, that is, except to be shared, with someone else who needs them. Enter the bibliotherapist, whose job is to explore your relationship with books and the issues that are pressing on you (ranging from grief or a job change, to a desire to find more meaning in your life) and then prescribe a list of books that will enrich and inspire you, and speak to your special problems.

What is Bibliotherapy?

The Online Dictionary for Library and Information Science defines bibliotherapy as:

“The use of books selected on the basis of content in a planned reading program designed to facilitate the recovery of patients suffering from mental illness or emotional disturbance. Ideally, the process occurs in three phases: personal identification of the reader with a particular character in the recommended work, resulting in psychological catharsis, which leads to rational insight concerning the relevance of the solution suggested in the text to the reader’s own experience. Assistance of a trained psychotherapist is advised.”

The theory and practice of bibliotherapy has been steadily gaining more widespread official recognition as a type of treatment, but storytelling, creative writing, and reading have long been recognized for their therapeutic potential.

The History of Bibliotherapy

The use of literature as a healing method dates back to ancient Greece, when Grecian libraries were seen as sacred places with curative powers. In the early nineteenth century, physicians began to use bibliotherapy as an intervention technique in rehabilitation and the treatment of mental health issues. During World Wars I and II, bibliotherapy was used to help returning soldiers deal with both physical and emotional concerns.

In 2007 the British philosopher Alain de Bolton co-founded the School of Life with the aim of developing emotional intelligence through culture. It included a bibliotherapy service, with bibliotherapists Ella Berthoud, Simona Lyons, and Susan Elderkin offering face-to-face or remote Skype or phone sessions. In an NPR interview with Susan Elderkin, Elderkin said:

“Books, we believe, can help you in many different ways. Sometimes it’s a sense of company or solace that you’re not the only one who’s been in this situation or mental state, and sometimes books cure just through the rhythm of their prose. I mean, there are books which have a wonderfully calming effect on your pulse rate. Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea always does it for me. You know, it totally stills me in some really beautiful fundamental way. And if you can’t get up in the morning, the first few pages of Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf is always a winner for rousing you and throwing open the window into the sunshine.”

Elderkin is also co-author of “The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies”, whish 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). In it, the authors point out that reading novels offers more than just distraction, entertainment, and an opportunity to unwind or focus, but can also be something more powerful—a way to learn about how to live. Read at the right moment in your life, a novel can—quite literally—change it.

Evidence behind Bibliotherapy

In addition to the plethora of anecdotal evidence supporting the effectiveness of bibliotherapy, there is a growing body of scientific research that reveals the effects of reading on both our mental health and our ability to empathize with others, which can lead to improved relationships. 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. Regular readers report sleeping better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers. A 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology, based on an analysis of FMRI brain scans of participants, showed that, when people read about an experience, they display stimulation within the same neurological regions as when they go through that experience themselves. We draw on the same brain networks when we’re reading stories and when we’re trying to guess at another person’s feelings. Other studies showed something similar- that people who read a lot of fiction tend to be better at empathizing with others. And an influential 2013 study published in “Science” found that reading literary fiction improved participants’ results on tests that measured social perception and empathy, which are crucial to “theory of mind”: the ability to guess with accuracy what another human being might be thinking or feeling.

Books as an Alternative Ear and Direction Towards Recovery

Finally, though inanimate, books seem to offer unconditional love. They will never reject or abandon us. In his 1905 essay “On Reading”, Marcel Proust puts it nicely: “With books there is no forced sociability. If we pass the evening with those friends-books- it’s because we really want to. When we leave them, we do so with regret and, when we have left them, there are none of those thoughts that spoil friendship: ‘What did they think of us?’- ‘Did we make a mistake or say something tactless?’- ‘Did they like us?’- nor is there the anxiety of being forgotten because of displacement by someone else.” Books don’t discriminate. They accept us exactly as we are. All they ask for is our attention, with the promise that, should we choose to give it to them, we will get so much more back in return.

Other Resources for Bibliotherapy

Interested in learning more? Here’s a link to the International Federation for Biblio/Poetry Therapy (IFBT) website: http://ifbpt.org/. Here you can search for and find a professional. IFBT has set official standards for the practice, and practitioners interested in becoming certified poetry therapists (an umbrella term encompassing the fields of bibliotherapy, poetry therapy, and journal therapy) can pursue training from the IFBT to obtain credentials.

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