Bibliotherapy – What’s on Your List?

Do you require Bronte to reboot your broken heart, Austen to curb your arrogance, or Hemingway for your headache?

Though bibliotherapy isn’t new (its origins can be traced back to the ancient Greeks), it’s recently getting a lot of press. Bibliotherapy is using the written word as a type of therapy to help patients with psychological disorders such as depression; Goodreads even has a section devoted to bibliotherapy with over 1,000 books recommended.

And a new book out this fall, The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies aims to cure whatever ails you through literary prescriptions. “Do you require Bronte to reboot your broken heart, Austen to curb your arrogance or Hemingway for your headache?” the book’s website playfully asks.

A Novel Cure is written by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, two “bibliotherapists” from a company launched by British writer Alain de Botton that charges “patients” 80 pounds per counseling session to meet with them (either in person in London or Melbourne or online), and receive your literary course of healing. Both of these women are writers but have no training in the mental health field.

While bibliotherapy is more traditionally used in cognitive therapy by giving a patient a nonfiction book about their condition, helping them to cope by better understanding what they’re dealing with, the idea of fiction as therapy is a more modern one. In a recent piece about The Novel Cure in The Economist, Berthoud says “fiction is often more powerful than self-help books” and that a good book can leave people “feeling altered in a fundamental way.”

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On the book’s website, their “Surgery” section allows you to email them your own personal quandary, and receive a prescription (I’m currently waiting on mine). On that same page, you can see examples of others problems, and the responses given. They range from a woman with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome who’s trying hard to be a good mom to a person who’s afraid of confrontation and can’t speak up to her husband or boss. Despite my suspicion of this entire enterprise, I’ll admit that the responses feel very thoughtful, and the books prescribed on-target.

That said, I’m of the belief that my own friends and family could find the right book for me when needed (though admittedly, my circle is made up of publishing folks and voracious readers, which may not be the case for everyone).

To that end, I did a little recon and asked friends and family what books they’ve looked to for tough times in their life, be it a breakup, getting out of a rut or looking to make a life change.

Here are some of the illuminating replies I got:

“Two books. Don’t laugh. The Bridges of Madison County. I read it when I was 27 and engaged to one guy. Then this other guy I was into but had never even been out with called me – and I realized that there was a “right” person for me out there and I didn’t have to settle. Been with guy #2 for 19 years now, married for 17. Second book: More Tales of the City. Michael and MaryAnn are making their New Year’s resolutions. MaryAnn’s are ‘I will meet Mr. Right this year. He will not be married. He will not be gay. He will not be a child pornographer.’ I give this credo to single friends. He’s out there, but there are just things that are non-starters.”

Letters to a Young Poet got me out of self-pitying funk in my 20s. I know that’s not original, which is what makes it great.”

“If things are really grim on my caseload – like, more than one suicidal client teetering on the edge or bad fights in couples therapy – I read a Calvin & Hobbes collection until I feel better. It always works!”

When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron. Amazingly good food for the soul! Taught me the beauty of not-knowing….”

“My anecdote about a book gone back to again and again is actually about my mom. When I was young she hurt her back and was in the hospital. When she got home she was bedridden. That first night I really wanted to help her and yet I was scared. She finally asked for me and said I could do something for her no one else could: read to her. And the book she chose was her favorite, The Little Prince. Every day during her recovery I read it to her. She said it helped her get well and it made me less scared. Whenever I read it now, I think of that time and how important I felt at 8 to be reading my mom’s favorite book aloud to her.”

Love is a Mix Tape.” (Though this friend didn’t elaborate on her choice, since I’m familiar with this memoir I’ll vouch for it and suggest it for anyone dealing with the loss of a loved one and trying to move on in the aftermath.)

“I’m not gonna lie – Fifty Shades of Gray brought some va-voom back in the b-room.”

“Are you There God? It’s Me, Margaret helped me through puberty.”

“As a kid who felt utterly out of place in high school, I totally got into the The Vampire Chronicles, especially Interview with the Vampire. I’m quite embarrassed about it now, but knowing how it helped Anne Rice through the grief of losing her daughter lessens my shame.”

[Photo Credit: Kzenon/]

We’re pretty sure the Read it Forward community is full of great bibliotherapists! Tell us about a work of fiction or memoir that’s been your personal therapist, or one that you’ve recommended to a friend in need.

About Kira Walton

KIRA WALTON has been stalking books all her life as a college English teacher, bookseller, book club consultant, author, and editor.

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