Bibliotherapy and The Novel Cure: Trusting Your Neuroses to Someone Else’s Literary Taste

book therapistThe above image has been floating around the internet for around a week now, drawing attention from many bookish websites and generally making people wonder: Book Therapist…is it a good idea? Well, one thing’s for certain…it’s not a unique idea. The concept of literature as a source of healing may have roots in ancient Greece and in several parts of the world, including New Zealand and the UK, GPs can even prescribe library books for the treatment of a wide array of mental health issues. While these GP-prescribed books have purportedly been assessed by qualified professionals and appear, by and large, to fall into the self-help range, there are also non-medical sources in some areas that offer bibliotherapy with a much larger focus on using fiction to confront personal problems.

the novel cure
$40.00, PB

One example is the work of School of Life authors Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. Having started their Bibliotherapy service in 2008, the pair have now released a book titled The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies which they refer to as an “alternative medical reference book.”

I’m not really concerned that people will look to this book as a replacement for real therapy or the advice of a GP (it’s fairly clear that the “cure” part of the title and concept is rather tongue-in-cheek). But I do wonder about the efficacy and necessity of such a book. Isn’t part of the balm behind literature created by the act of independent discovery? Of finding that a particular text is relevant to your life in ways you couldn’t have anticipated? And yet, there’s something appealing about this title’s concept, so I’m testing the theory of prescribed fiction using one of my own psychological bugaboos — fear of death.

In The Novel Cure (as well as on the website of the same name) under the heading “Death, fear of,” the group recommends White Noise by Don DeLillo and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez. As I happened to have an unread copy of White Noise on my bookshelf, I started it earlier this week and now have less than 100 pages left to finish. So far I have reached no startling new revelations regarding my fear of death, only a reinforcement of the already obvious fact that it’s a rather universal fear. However, the longer the novel has gone on, the more fear-of-death centered it has become, so I still have hope that it will aid me in some way. One unfortunate thing I’ve noticed, however, is that knowing the book has been prescribed for this ailment has definitely coloured my reading. I find myself spending every page looking for hints of DeLillo’s take on mortality, once even writing in the margins, regarding the main character’s son, “Is his son his own fear of death?” While one might argue that this focus has led to a closer reading on my part, I suspect that it’s also distracting me from other prevalent themes, such as how the pervasiveness of television and popular culture affects our lives.

As another way of evaluating The Novel Cure, I have used the index to uncover what ailments books I have already read have been prescribed for. In the end, this yielded quite satisfying results, the following prescriptions being my favourites:

bullied, being

     Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

family, coping without

     I am Legend by Richard Matheson

happiness, searching for

     Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

jump ship, desire to

     Rabbit, Run by John Updike

malaise, twenty-first century

     Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

These prescriptions all seem apt but my recommendation, should you wish to use The Novel Cure to address a problem of your own, is to look up the books that have been prescribed for your ailment but to avoid reading the reasoning behind the prescription until you’ve finished the last page of each title; although the ones I’ve read are well-phrased and enjoyable, these descriptive passages can also be spoiler-laden (one gives away the main conflict as well as the ending of Jane Eyre). Another great way to use The Novel Cure would be as a source of gift ideas for close friends (the type who come to one for advice and commiseration).

I have no doubt that the right book at the right time can make a huge difference in one’s emotional and psychological state. While I do think there are qualities of The Novel Cure that mean it is not a 100% perfect method of encountering such literary salves (perhaps the experience of a real bibliotherapy appointment would be), I also think it’s a fantastic place to start when you’re at a loss for what book might help smooth the emotional burrs in your life (especially those that are too personal to bring to the attention of your local bookseller!). Although I don’t look forward to the troubles I may encounter in my future, I do like knowing I have a copy of The Novel Cure to turn to when ailments and sorrows inevitably arrive.

Liz Gillett

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