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Saved by the Book

“Many people, myself among them, feel better at the mere sight of a book.” —Jane Smiley Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel.

Can you relate? Do you view the books that live on your shelves as dear friends or even as saviors? Coming into your life as though coming to your rescue. And yet books 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 troubling you and then prescribe a list of books that will enrich and inspire you.

What is Bibliotherapy?

“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 Dictionary for Library and Information Science)

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 illnesses. During World Wars I and II, bibliotherapy was used to help returning soldiers deal with both physical and emotional wounds.

In an NPR interview with bibliotherapist 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 co-author of “The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies”, which is written in thestyle of a medical dictionary and matches ailments with suggested reading cures. 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.

Books as an Alternative Ear and Direction Towards Recovery

“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.”-Marcel Proust, “On Reading” Though inanimate, books seem to offer unconditional love—They will never reject or abandon us; they 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.

Interested in reading more? Click to visit the International Federation for Biblio/Poetry Therapy

Northampton, MA

211 North Street
Northampton, MA 01060

San Luis Obispo, CA

1411 Marsh Street, Suite 103
San Luis Obispo, CA 93401

Portland, OR

2120 SW Jefferson Street, Suite 300
Portland, OR 97201

Windhorse Integrative Mental Health is a 501(c)3 nonprofit