As many of you lovely patrons know, I am a student of the First World War. Now, this is not a topic that is generally applicable to everyday life…unless you use a spork on a daily basis. Because they were first conceived of and developed by the American Army in 1917. The more you know.
But there are times, rare magical times, when being a First World War historian comes in handy. Like this week, when The New Yorker published an article titled “Can Reading Make Your Happier?”. The article is centered around a lovely little book called The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness, written by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin…who are trained bibliotherapists.
What, you might ask, are bibliotherapists? They are, essentially, practitioners in the art of healing people through books. Bibliotherapy can take many forms. Some Churches hold reading circles; prisons offer classes in literature for inmates; nursing homes have book clubs for patients suffering from dementia. But at the heart of all these groups is essentially the same: to “put new life into us”.
Bibliotherapy has existed, in some form, since the time of the Ancient Greeks, who inscribed over the doors of the library at Thebes that this was a “‘healing place for the soul”. Freud used literature with his psychotherapy patients (though, admittedly, he was just as concerned with Hamlet’s psychological make-up as he was with his patients…). But bibliotherapy actually came into its own, and got its name, during the First World War.
Many military hospitals, particularly those in the US, were equipped with libraries, and doctors actually prescribed reading to their injured soldier-patients as part of their treatment. This practice was particularly used for shell-shocked patients (men who suffered from the condition we now call PTSD), whose minds were trapped by their memories. But there are records of doctors prescribing reading course of treatment for civilians, as well. The New Yorker describes a “literary clinic” that was run in 1916 out of a Church by a man named Bagster. I was particularly drawn to the description of a man who had “taken an overdose of war literature,” and required bibliotherapy to calm him down.
There is no cold hard science behind bibliotherapy, but each practitioner offers a similar ideology. According to the good Mr. Bagster, “A book may be a stimulant or a sedative or an irritant or a soporific. The point is that it must do something to you, and you ought to know what it is.” According to Régine Detambel, an award-winning author who consciously writes pieces to be used in bibliotherapy, “We are all beings of language…There’s a certain rapport between the text and the body that must be considered” she explained, “Books are caresses, in the strongest sense of the term!”
Shirley Jackson wrote in The Haunting of Hill House, “No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.” And I think, at its heart, that bibliotherapy seeks to offer an antidote to that reality. For the men like those Bagster mentioned, who had read too much war literature–literature that describes in graphic detail the very real chaos, fear, and anger of the First World War–there was Jane Austen, whose work is not only light and fun, but marked by manners, rules, and justice.
Bibliotherapy also counters reality by offering empathy. Berthoud mentions a patient of who was struggling with being the single father of a baby. For him, there was To Kill A Mockingbird, a novel that features another single father, who has to navigate some of the most challenging issues a parent can face. George Eliot is said to have overcome her grief over her husband’s death by reading fiction with a young friend of hers…who later became her second husband.
Ultimately, bibliotherapy emphasizes one of the most basic purposes of fiction–to remind us that we are not alone, even when the world seems big and scary and overwhelming. To give us the chance to connect, not only with characters who can help us grow, or help us calm down, or help us learn, but to connect, as well, with other readers. I owe some of my favorite relationships in this world to books (many thanks, Jonathan Strange), and some of my favorite memories to the stories we shared.
So please know that, no matter how big the world may seem, and how sadder, the library is here to help. We can’t make it better out there, but we can offer a bit of an escape from the reality outside. We may not have answers, but we have shelves and shelves of books, filled with countless characters, who are all quite eager to let you know that you are not alone. We may not have answers, but we have books. And sometimes, that is enough.