By Andy Lowe
Fiction can be a powerful healer, and on 22 November 2022 twenty members and friends of WiPS joined an interview with our international guest, bibliotherapist Ella Berthoud who co-authored The Novel Cure, and moderator, Bhakti Mathur, to learn what bibliotherapy is and how fiction can help us cure life’s ailments.
Neuroscientists suggest that reading for six minutes a day is as beneficial as one hour of meditation. During reading our heart rate stills and our brain waves change and, in short, we de-stress. By implication then, bibliotherapy can play an important role in mental health. We heard fascinating examples of this, such as the WW2 doctors who recommended Jane Austin to soldiers suffering from shellshock. Since good, well-written, fiction can be immersive it offers its reader an opportunity for catharsis, reflection, perspective-taking, or escape – all of which can be healing.
Bibliotherapists work to understand their client’s reading preferences and life circumstances then write “prescriptions” recommending three of four specific books for them to read. Prescriptions are dependent on the unique needs, tastes and preferred choices of each client, and writing them is an evolving, artful and intuitive process. Having said that, three common ailments that Ella encounters and her related recommended reads are: Motherhood (becoming a mother for the first time): The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt; Retirement: The Enigma of Arrival by V.S. Naipaul; and Bereavement: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.
Ella finished her talk by offering recommendations on how to increase reading, which included listening to audio books (while multi-tasking); creating a “reading nook”; reading aloud with someone you live with (i.e. adult to adult); creating a reading-aloud reading group; and joining a book club. Although bibliotherapy sessions are typically one-on-one, Ella advised that group sessions are also gaining in popularity in social services settings.