Bibliotherapy: a Novel Cure

If your depression seems resistant to the usual therapies, Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin may have a novel cure for you: bibliotherapy.

Bibliotherapy
Reading as Therapy

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,” wrote Ceridwen Dovey in her New Yorker article “Can Reading Make You Happier?” 

“Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.”

Enter the Bibliotherapist

Bibliotherapy, as offered through The School of Life, is not unlike any first session with a therapist.

Patients answer questions about their reading habits and “What is preoccupying you at the moment?”

The bibliotherapy session can take place in-person (in London) or via phone or skype.

Patients receive an instant prescription, and a full prescription follows within a couple of days.

Bibliotherapy by the Book

As therapies go, $140 is a bargain for many, many hours of reading “books that can put their finger on feelings that you may often have had but perhaps never understood so clearly before; books that open new perspectives and re-enchant the world for you.”

But, if circumstances prevent you from scheduling an appointment at this time, try Mss. Berthoud and Elderkin’s book, The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You.

Method of Treatment

Each human condition listed prescribes a novel title or several. There’s a brief description of common aspects of the condition, then a brief description of how the title relates,  and, finally, a summary of the novel’s active ingredients.     

“Sometimes it’s the story that charms; other times it’s the rhythm of the prose that works on the psyche, stilling or stimulating. Sometimes it’s an idea or an attitude suggested by a character in a similar quandary or jam. Either way, novels have the power to transport you to another existence and see the world from a different point of view.”

Ten Minute Exercise

Each book’s entry is concise enough to help you make an informed decision about whether the prescribed novel is right for you in ten minutes or less.

If you’d like to give bibliotherapy a test drive, I’ve quoted from the authors’ active ingredients for prescriptions related to common depression challenges. 

1. Choose a prescription for a current depression challenge. 

2. Pick prescription up at your local library or order it for online delivery. 

I’ve been in a funk all day.

SADNESS

The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B by J.P. Donleavy

“If you are sad, immerse yourself in the warm, tender humor of this novel. To begin the long, slow uplift out of sadness that it effects.”

Also see: DISSATISFACTION; GRUMPINESS; MALAISE, TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY

The things I usually do for fun just aren’t fun anymore.

DISENCHANTMENT

Le Grand Meaulnes by Alain-Fournier

“Meaulnes’s tragedy is that when he finds happiness he can’t embrace it. His sense of identity is too firmly bound up with yearning, and he needs the dream to remain a dream. But we can live differently.”

Also see: APATHY; POINTLESSNESS; STAGNATION, MENTAL

I can’t seem to stop losing weight.

APPETITE, LOSS OF 

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa 

“One cannot help but revel in the old patriarch’s appreciation for the sensual world. This is a novel that will help you rediscover your appetite—for food, for love, for the countryside, for Sicily with all its history and rampant beauty. And, most important, for life itself.”

I can’t seem to stop gaining weight.

OBESITY

“If you’re overweight because you’re unhappy, don’t padlock the fridge or put yourself on a rigid diet; the diet will fail and you’ll only make yourself unhappier still. Try to discover why you are seeking consolation—this book may give you some ideas (for starters, try: Stuck in a rut, or Career, being in the wrong). Once you’ve ironed out your relationship with yourself, your relationship with food will self-correct.”

STUCK IN A RUT

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

“Long before you’ve reached the travails of Winston Cheung, the paper’s barely competent, barely employed Cairo stringer, you will find yourself resolving to avoid their fate, unstick yourself, and get a move on.”

CAREER, BEING IN THE WRONG

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt

“If you, too, could find a way of earning money that brought you spiritual as well as financial rewards—and allowed you to spend your days full of joy—what would it be?”

I can’t get to sleep. I’m constantly on edge.

INSOMNIA

The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa 

“Nowhere in literature are the rhythms of prose more attuned to the lumbering gait of the sleepless hours. If your eyelids start to droop as you read, Soares won’t mind. You can pick up your conversation with him, wherever you left off, tomorrow night.”

ANXIETY

The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James 

“Of the fourteen causes of anxiety that we have identified, the first chapter…can be expected to ameliorate ten.”

Also see: AGORAPHOBIA; ANGST, EXISTENTIAL; IRRITABILITY; PANIC ATTACK; STRESS

I sleep all the time. I have no energy.

BED, THE INABILITY TO GET OUT OF

Bed by David Whitehouse. 

“Read it once, and then during subsequent attacks of the condition you will need only a brief dip to send you leaping out from under your duvet and thence into anything other than the small suburban bedroom and freak show of a life depicted within its pages.”

EXHAUSTION

Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis 

“What we love most about this archetype of energy is his apparently limitless ability to throw himself wholeheartedly into the next project, frequently picking himself up off the floor (when by all rights he should sleep for a week) and dancing himself back to life.”

LETHARGY 

I’m a worthless piece of crap.

SELF-ESTEEM, LOW

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

“If you subject yourself to constant criticism, undermining your belief in yourself and your own opinions, you’ll recognize a kindred spirit in the nameless narrator.”

See also: IDIOT, FEELING LIKE A; HOPE, LOSS OF; SHAME

I’m the meanest, most insensitive person who’s ever walked this planet.

MISANTHROPY

The Holy Sinner by Thomas Mann

“If, like Gregory, you tend to stand apart from humanity, despising what you see, consider whether your hatred isn’t in fact hatred of yourself. Adopt, like Gregory, the expression Absolvo te—“I forgive you”—and turn it inward. Once you’ve learned to love yourself, you’ll find it easier to forgive others’ failings as well.”

Also see: ANGER; ANTISOCIAL, BEING: CYNICISM; EMPATHY, LACK OF; SCHADENFREUDE

My attention span is zero seconds, and I can’t decide what to eat for lunch, let alone what to do with my life.

INDECISION

Indecision by Benjamin Kunkel

“Dwight Wilmerding, the twenty-eight-year-old slacker hero…finds that he can’t ‘think of the future until [he’s] arrived there—a quality shared by many indecisive types.”

RISKS, NOT TAKING ENOUGH

The Sense of and Ending by Julian Barnes

“As he sits alone in his poky, aging bachelor lair, he occupies his idle hours with meaningless tasks: ‘I restrung my blind, descaled the kettle, mended the split in an old pair of jeans.’ Too late, he finds himself ‘in revolt against my own . . . what? Conventionality, lack of imagination, expectation of disappointment?’ At least, he comforts himself, ‘I still have my own teeth.'”

Also see: COMMITMENT, FEAR OF 

I’m always thinking about death.

DEATH, FEAR OF

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez 

“As the novel spans a full century, death occurs often and matter-of-factly and the characters accept their part in the natural order of things—an attitude that, in time, may rub off on you.”

DEATH OF A LOVED ONE

Recommendations follow Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief.

DENIAL

After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell

“Let this novel give you permission to exist for a while in your own cocoon of shock. Don’t worry if you can’t seem to persuade yourself to come out of it; your body will shed the cocoon when it’s ready.”

ANGER

Incendiary by Chris Cleave

“Your anger may feel endless—and so it should, for it is the transmutation of your love. But it can dissipate only if you let it out. This stage cannot be rushed.”

BARGAINING

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer

“Oskar finds…an understanding of suffering and loss from the lives of his grandparents before he was born and, in a touch that will help to rewarm your heart, the desire for a grief-stricken but loving mother to help her son recover from his enormous loss.”

DEPRESSION

What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt

“Pain is an unavoidable part of life, and experiencing yours in the company of these characters will help you inhabit its darkest corners—perhaps the most vital part of the process of grieving, if you have any hope of moving on.”

ACCEPTANCE

Here is Where We Meet by John Berger

“So it is that, further along in our mourning process (though the process never ends), we come to see our lost loved ones as they really were, the good and the bad together.”

Author: Bruce Cantwell

Writer, journalist and long-time mindfulness practitioner.