Rare are those who go through hardships with their hearts intact. To identify what one feels through such circumstances is never easy. Which one of us has not required assistance with an emotional tangle ? Which one of us has not fallen short of deciphering jumbled feelings that seem to seep by osmosis from our broken hearts ? In how many ways reading novels has shaped your self-understanding? If you are reading this, my guess is the following ; whenever this world disappoints you, you will run towards your bookshelf like a migrating bird that is lured back home, hoping that this book you have just bought will offer solace. And if you share my belief in the effectiveness of fiction as the purest form of bibliotherapy, you will agree that our bookshelves are our apothecary.
Can fiction cure what ails you ?
In their book “The Novel Cure”, Susan Elderkin and Ella Berthoud claim to have a cure for all ailments ranging from abandonment to zestlessness and everything in between. The two bibliotherapists invite us to their own apothecary full of Balzacian balms and Tolstoyan tourniquets, the salves of Saramago and the purges of Perec and Proust. To create it, they have trawled two thousand years of literature. Their prescriptions are simple: a book or two, to be read at regular intervals. Some prescriptions will lead to a complete recovery. Others will simply offer solace, telling you that you’re not alone. So, what is the concept of bibliotherapy? And how can literature help us increase our sense of empathy and compassion ?
What is bibliotherapy ?
It has been more than a century since this term has appeared when American author and minister Samuel McChord Crothers first used ‘bibliotherapy’ to describe using books to help patients understand health issues. The key concepts were established by a group of health practitioners and psychiatrists who have practiced bibliotherapy on World War I veterans. In fact, the ideological acceptance that books have healing properties is an ancient one. King Ramses II of Egypt owned a chamber for his books; above the door was the phrase “House of Healing for the Soul.”
Bibliotherapy is quite a vague term for a continuum of activities that offer potential for self-understanding, growth and emotional intelligence through the use of literary fiction, poetry, drama and biography. It is called bibliocounseling, bibliopsychology, book therapy, book matching, guided reading, library therapeutics, literatherapy, literature therapy, and reading therapy. Literature does that by providing stories which reflect different models of real-life struggles and dilemmas, opening up our minds to endless possibilities, answering perennial questions and expanding our sense of what it means to be.
How does it work ?
Caroline Shrodes, author of “The Conscious Reader” and advocate for bibliotherapy offered us the framework for the bibliotherapeutic process : identification, catharsis and insight. Identification is when you associate yourself with a character in a book. You join him or her on the adventure. Then comes catharsis, in which you share the feelings and motivations of the book’s character. You live through his or her situation and you experience the conflicts, surprises and resolutions. Insight takes place as you realize his or her situation can be dealt with successfully. The process is completed when you adopt the problem-solving ideas from the reading material.
“To read a writer is for me not merely to get an idea of what he says, but to go off with him and travel in his company”. -André Gide.
More fiction !
Bibliotherapy is often reinforced by the use of a variety of other techniques and therapies such as discussion, creative writing, intuitive painting and dramatization. Reading in a group can create meaningful discussions and allows to give and receive other perspectives and interpretations. Although bibliotherapists recommend also philosophy, poetry or nonfiction books, fiction seems to be more therapeutic by enhancing the ability of empathy and emotional intelligence. For some it’s the story that charms, for others it’s the rhythm of the prose that works its magic on the psyche.
In the end, fiction reaches towards self-understanding in a language that is individually ours. Whatever your ailment, reach for a book and dive deeper into it. No one comes back from such a journey quite the same.