I suspect that the idea that books can help us through challenging times in our lives is not exactly a revelation to most avid readers. We’re conditioned to turn to books in times of crisis–for the solace of familiar “comfort reads,” for information, for ideas that may shift (or strengthen) our perspectives. We’ve probably been practicing self-administered “bibliotherapy” for much of our lives, and we know it works:
“As generations of book lovers will tell you, literature transforms us. If pressed to say exactly how, most of us will mutter something about perspective or the experience of entering another person’s consciousness. But all would agree that our best-loved books have in some significant way changed us for the better.”
Nina Sankovitch’s Tolstoy and the Purple Chair, a memoir of the year she spent reading a book a day after the death of her sister, is essentially a record of her own personal course of bibliotherapy. Thinking about it a little more broadly, it seems to me that many memoirs of a “life in books” probably also chronicle some element of the reader/author’s turning to books in a difficult time, although it’s not necessarily as deliberate as Sankovitch’s.
But for those who may be less self-directed about seeking a reading cure, bibliotherapy has been codified:
“(T)he London-based School of Life (has) taken this intuition a step further. Their ‘bibliotherapy‘ program matches individuals struggling in any aspect of their lives with a list of books hand-selected to help them through tough times. You get your reading list after an initial consultation with a bibliotherapist in which you discuss your life, your reading history, and your problems…
“…(T)here’s no objective measure of the results – all the (abundant) evidence of bibliotherapy’s efficacy is anecdotal. (Bibliotherapy offers) distance from and perspective on your troubles as you view them through the lens of other people’s lives. The people are mostly fictional (though some non-fiction is also prescribed) but they’re dealing with issues just like yours and almost certainly approaching them differently.”
The School of Life offers bibliotherapy for individuals, couples, and kids, and if you’re not in London, they offer remote sessions via Skype. In any case, the approach is the same: the client completes a pre-session questionnaire, and after discussing their reading history and current issues with a bibliotherapist, receives a personalized reading list designed to address their problems. The bibliotherapists have no special training; they are an author, an artist, and a bookstore owner, all avid lifelong readers, and their mission is to create the perfect “reading prescription” for each client.
The prescription reading lists don’t take the obvious route of self-help books; the bibliotherapists specialize in fiction, but may also recommend poetry, philosophy, and other creative nonfiction.
One of the things I love most about being a reader is that sometimes the best way to sort through what’s inside your own head is to be given a free pass into someone else’s, and I believe that nothing does that like reading fiction. That said, I’m not sure what’s being offered at the School of Life is particularly “biblio-therapeutic;” what it sounds like to me is a very personally curated, specifically targeted (and rather pricey) personal-shopper service for books (although it isn’t clear to me whether clients actually receive the books themselves, or just the recommendations).
During my own time of need for bibliotherapy a decade ago, my preferred treatments were memoir, history, and biography rather than fiction; I still wanted stories, but I wanted those stories to be real. And I still read those forms of nonfiction, but now it’s because I’ve discovered that I like them. Yes, books can transform us.