This past June, I posted a little insight as To Why I Read. Since posting that, my summer only grew more hectic and my fall is shaping up to follow suit. Yet, no matter how stressful life got, I always found time to read. It soothed me. Once I finish a book, I had to start a new one in just a few days or I actually got cranky.
My fellow book lovers joke about our bibliophile disorder, but what if reading keeps us sane?
The Atlantic Monthly coined the term “A Literary Clinic” in 1916 (citation). Bibliotherapy, as it is known today, is a cost-effective treatment used to support good mental health and supplement certain types of therapy (citation). Therapists use it with individuals and groups and adults and children. Many teachers and librarians use this with patrons on a daily basis.
I remember when I worked in the library, students came in specifically looking for books about issues experienced. I recommended fiction books and nonfiction. I also made sure that a book recommendation never replaced the need to speak with a mental health professional when needed. Ironically, many of the books I recommended were banned books (I wonder if there is a connection).
Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin , the authors of The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies deliver a course at the School of Life in London to train professionals in the use of bibliotherapy. Their book is designed in the same format as a medical dictionary; listing “ailments” and then prescribed treatments. I checked out their book from the library. I was not familiar with many of the books listed. I found the book a little overwhelming
In his 2011 book, Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction, Keith Oatley writes “Fiction is a kind of simulation, one that runs not on computers but on minds: a simulation of selves in their interactions with others in the social world…based in experience, and involving being able to think of possible futures” (citation). Any bibliophile that I know intimately understands this. Books are cherished friends and mortal enemies. We grieve when a beloved character dies and we plot revenge when they get screwed, but this goes beyond that. Certain books have the power to move us and transform our current way of thinking and feeling. Angela’s Ashes is a very difficult book for me to read. Reading The Color Purple and The Women of Brewster Place kills me to read. These books tackle issues that are very raw and personal to me.
This summer, I listened to Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail while driving back and forth to see my mom at the hospital and then in a rehab facility. The timing of this was also significant because I started a new job. As I listened to the struggles of the main character, Cheryl, I knew if she got herself out some incredible messes, I could too. I could tackle my job and succeed wildly.
There are different types of bibliotherapy.
- Prescriptive bibliotherapy, which is also referred to as self-help, involves the use of specific reading materials and workbooks to address a variety of mental health concerns. Self-help may be conducted with or without the guidance of a therapist. A cognitive behavioral therapist teaching someone deep breathing and emotion regulation techniques may provide that person with a practice workbook to use at home, for example.
- Books on Prescription is a program where reading materials targeting specific mental health needs are “prescribed” by mental health professionals, who might use resources such as the Bibliotherapy Education Project to find the appropriate books. Most libraries in the United States carry a set of books from the approved list for this purpose, often providing as a book list on their website. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburg is one such library. Their website also lists books for children, which cover topics like adoption, self-esteem, grief, divorce, and more.
- Creative bibliotherapy utilizes imaginative literature—novels, short stories, poetry, plays, and biographies—to improve psychological well-being. Through the incorporation of carefully selected literary works, therapists can often guide people in treatment on a journey of self-discovery. This method is most beneficial when people are able to identify with a character, experience an emotional catharsis as a result of this identification, and then gain insight into their own life experiences. A therapist might use Our Gracie Aunt by Jacqueline Woodson, a story about a brother and sister who live with their aunt due to their mother’s neglect, with a child who has experienced abuse to build interactive discussions and activities around the child’s experience of the story.
Here is a partial list of some of the books I have read during certain times in my life and how they helped:
My Posse Don’t do Homework, Louanne Johnson & Freedom Writers, Erin Gruwell- My first teaching job was hard. After my first day, I went home and cried for two hours straight. I couldn’t quit. I had bills to pay. I desperately wanted to be a teacher and I decided I needed to dig in my heels. These two books, which are both better than the movie, encouraged me to stay.
The Time Traveler’s Wife Audrey Niffenegger- I read this book shortly after the birth of my first child. I was not prepared for the reality of being a new mom. It was nothing like the books I read. I suffered some mild depression and found myself doubting every part of my life including my role as a wife and my relationship as a husband. As I read this, I thought about the love shared between the two main characters. It reminded me of why I married my husband and what he meant to me.
To Kill A Mockingbird Harper Lee- I know many will agree with me that this is a powerful book. I often find myself thinking about Atticus and what he represented. Remembering that this story is told from Scout’s perspective, who was young at the time, it is amazing that he made that much of an impression. This book often shapes how I parent and even how I relate to others on a human level.
The Red Tent Anita Diamant- This book influenced my thinking of myself as a female and the role I play in this universe. I read this while I was pregnant with my second child. We decided early in the pregnancy to have a home birth. This book grounded me to my earthly soul and my connection to the life force we all have.
I need to say that I know books will ever replace the guidance of a trained mental health professional and in many cases, it is important to work with one. Books add to mental health therapies the way sprinkles add flavor to ice cream. Next time you are struggling with a decision or maybe a crazy demon in your head, try reading a book about a character who is experiencing something similar. It might just help.