Ancient art of bibliotherapy
The feminist writer and commentator, Roxanne Gay appearing at the 2017 Sydney Writers Festival said, ‘Throughout my life books have been my best friends….. with books I have been able to forget the cruelties of the world. I have been able to shield myself when I needed safety. I have been able to find solace and joy. I have been able to find sanctuary – a consecrated place, a place of refuge and protection.’
This view of books as an anchor in times of uncertainty was emphasised as a theme by the Festival’s artistic director, Michaela McGuire, who said that we look to books as a place of refuge, of comfort, of hope in a time of environmental change, of displacement, of political turmoil.
Indeed, many writers speak of the comfort of books in troubled times. William Somerset Maugham said that ‘to acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life’. Maugham who famously wrote about his unhappy childhood in Of Human Bondage and who literally starved in the 10 years before his first success as a writer, knew very well the power of books to sustain him.
‘Whenever you read a good book, somewhere in the world a door opens to allow in more light,’ said American-Russian writer Vera Nazarian. And this is true – books have the power to touch us and transform us, help us make sense of things. We often have an emotional response to what we read, as if the writer is speaking directly to us.
Bibliotherapy is a very broad term for the ancient practice of encouraging reading for therapeutic effect. It’s not so much about the topics covered by self-help guides – like becoming richer, fitter, more effective, more creative or somehow finding the best version of ourselves.
A book doesn’t need to lecture to leave its imprint. The truth is that all good literature changes us.
The first use of the term, bibliotherapy, is usually dated to a somewhat jaunty article titled A Literary Clinic written in 1916. In it, the author describes stumbling upon a ‘bibliopathic’ institute in the basement of a church, from where reading recommendations with healing value are dispensed - where a book may be a stimulant or a sedative or an irritant or a soporific (a drug or other substance that induces drowsiness or sleep).
Today, bibliotherapy takes many different forms, from literature courses run for prison inmates to reading circles for elderly people suffering from dementia. Sometimes it can simply mean one-on-one or group sessions for lapsed readers who want to find their way back to an enjoyment of books.
While the word ‘bibliotherapy’ has been in use for over one hundred years its history is much longer. The concept of bibliotherapy dates back to 300 BC when the ancient Greeks placed inscriptions over library entrances that stated that within the building was healing for the soul. The concept is linked to the philosopher Aristotle, who considered literature had healing benefits, and that reading fiction was a way of treating illness – to Aristotle reading was a healing pleasure.
The practice came into its own at the end of the nineteenth century, when Sigmund Freud began using literature during psychoanalysis sessions.
After the First World War, traumatised soldiers returning home from the front were often prescribed a course of reading. Librarians in the United States were given training on how to give books to WWI vets, and there’s a story about Jane Austen’s novels being used for bibliotherapeutic purposes at the same time in the UK.
Up until mid-20th century bibliotherapy had been mainly used with hospitalised adults to support mental health. An important factor in the evolution of bibliotherapy was the deinstitutionalisation of mental health care in the 1970s. This saw the use of bibliotherapy begin to move away from the hospital environment and into diverse areas of the community including libraries, general medical practice, psychology, criminal justice, nursing, social work, education and occupational therapy. Psychologists, social and aged-care workers, and doctors started to use of literature as a viable mode of therapy to help people deal with psychological, emotional and social problems.
The Novel Cure by bibliotherapists Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin is described as a medical handbook - with a difference. For a range of ailments, the authors suggest a cure in the form of a novel to help ease the pain. I think we would all agree, that when read at the right moment, a novel can change our lives, and The Novel Cure is an enchanting reminder of that power.
Current initiatives such as Words that Heal and Books on Prescription speak to the power of books to not only change us but to transform our thinking. Books not only inspire and awaken us, they restore us, they help us, they can heal us.
Words That Heal is a group reading program promoting positive wellbeing that involves imaginative literature (fiction, inspirational stories, poetry) being read aloud in a group by a trained facilitator, followed by discussion around meaning creation.
Books on Prescription is a program that helps manage personal wellbeing using self-help reading. The books provide helpful information and step-by-step self-help techniques for managing common conditions including depression, anxiety, stress and eating disorders.
For all those readers who have been self-medicating with great books their entire lives, it comes as no surprise that reading books can be good for your mental health and your relationships with others, but exactly why and how is now becoming clearer, thanks to research on reading’s effects on the brain.
Since the discovery, in the mid-nineties, of ‘mirror neurons’—neurons that fire in our brains both when we perform an action ourselves and when we see an action performed by someone else—the neuroscience of empathy has become clearer.
A 2011 study published in the Annual Review of Psychology, based on analysis of MRI 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 empathising with others (even after the researchers had accounted for the potential bias that people with greater empathetic tendencies may prefer to read novels).
And, in 2013, an influential study published in Science found that reading literary fiction (rather than popular fiction or literary nonfiction) 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
But even if you don’t agree that reading fiction makes us treat others better, it is a way of treating ourselves better. 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.
Most of us tend to slow our breathing while reading and this has positive effects on our parasympathetic nervous system, the rest and digest response in the body.
It is also said that as our minds concentrate on reading, tensions in the body are eased. More than just a distraction; it is an active engaging of the imagination which causes us to enter what psychologists describe as an altered state of consciousness.
Regular readers are said to sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers. ‘Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines,’ the author Jeanette Winterson has written. ‘What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination.’
Research conducted by cognitive neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis in 2009 offers evidence that reading is good for us. In fact, the research showed reading works better and faster than other relaxation methods to reduce stress levels. Reading silently for six minutes reduced stress by 68 percent. This was higher than listening to music at 61 percent, having a ‘cuppa’ at 54 percent or going for a walk at 42 percent.
There is a long-held belief among both writers and readers that books are the best kinds of friends. In his 1905 essay On Reading, Marcel Proust puts it nicely: “With books there is no forced sociability. If we pass the evening with books—it’s because we really want to. When we leave them, we do so with regret. Books do not question or judge. They make safe companions.’
Pulitzer Prize winning author and journalist, Anna Quindlen says, ‘In books I have travelled, not only to other worlds, but into my own. I learned who I was and who I wanted to be, what I might aspire to, and what I might dare to dream about my world and myself. More powerfully and persuasively than from the "shalt nots" of the Ten Commandments, I learned the difference between good and evil, right and wrong. But I felt that I existed much of the time in a different dimension from everyone else I knew. There was waking, and there was sleeping. And then there were books, a kind of parallel universe in which anything might happen and frequently did, a universe in which I might be a newcomer but was never really a stranger’.
So many writers and readers have professed their love of reading, and if you’re a book-lover, you can relate to their statements. There’s something magic about opening a book and leaving the real world behind. When times are difficult, or you are going through a painful experience, or you just want to escape, the worlds in books are always waiting for you — books can literally help you take care of yourself.
Are literary worlds truly magic, or are there actual reasons why you feel happier while reading? Even after closing the cover of a book, you may notice that you are calmer and ready to tackle life. Whether you read for relaxation, motivation, or pure escapism, the truth is that reading can actually make you happier. In summary, here are some of the ways that reading benefits your happiness.
You Can Travel Without Physically Going Anywhere - If what you really want to do is go on an extended vacation, but you're unable to do so, reading is a great way to escape without actually leaving your seat.
Reading Reduces Stress - Stress can be a major factor in unhappiness, but reading helps relieve some tension: you can reduce your stress by reading for just six minutes at a time. Imagine how amazing you'd feel if you read for six hours. Or six days straight.
It Can Put You In A Trance - 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. Nothing promotes happiness like inner calm.
Reading Improves Empathy - Research shows that reading actually makes you more empathetic. If you are able to put yourself in another's shoes, this will lead to greater understanding. Hopefully, in the long run, that can help us work to create a better, fairer world, and thus, a happier one.
Reading Helps You Process What Is Happening In Reality - When things are difficult to process, fiction can actually help you escape... but it can also help you understand the world and get through difficult times.
Reading Can Help You Sleep Better - Because of the many health benefits of reading, books can actually help you sleep better. And what's happier than sleep?
You Can Meet New Friends - Whether you're discussing books online or starting a book club to talk about the latest bestseller, you can find new friends by bonding over literature. These social connections will boost your happiness, and you'll get to read even more.
Books Can Open Your Mind - Books can lead to an open mind, which will increase your happiness: you can become more tolerant and less prejudiced by reading, according to a study on Harry Potter in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.
Reading Can Reduce Depression - According to a UK study, readers are ‘21 percent less likely to experience feelings of depression.’
You Don't Have To Spend Money To Read - Thanks to libraries, you can borrow books for free! The phrase "free books" is certainly a happy one.