This section explains what bibliotherapy is, introduces you to some major organisations that promote it, and indicates some of the growing evidence that supports its value.
There’s no one definition of bibliotherapy but all forms are based on a certainty that literature can be therapeutic, both as a healing agent and a contributor to human flourishing. (Interestingly, a recent study reported in The Guardian concluded that reading adds years to your life too!) Don’t let the word put you off! Bibliotherapy’s a new word to many people we meet – even those who are already practising reading as a form of life enhancement. Reading groups up and down the country meet for enjoyment and socialising, but their love of literature is also based on their understanding that it helps them live well.
Who better than great writers to be able to express the power of reading? Many readers will agree with those below:
“We read to know we’re not alone.”
― William Nicholson, Shadowlands
“You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
― James Baldwin
“Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you.”
― Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Shadow of the Wind
“The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and particular to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you have never met, someone even who is long dead. And it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”
― Alan Bennett, The History Boys
“Reading is the sole means by which we slip, involuntarily, often helplessly, into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul.”
― Joyce Carol Oates
“Reading is like thinking, like praying, like talking to a friend, like expressing your ideas, like listening to other people’s ideas, like listening to music, like looking at the view, like taking a walk on the beach.”
― Roberto Bolaño, 2666
“For some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid squares of paper unfolds world after world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die.”
― Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
“We read books to find out who we are. What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel… is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.”
― Ursula K. Le Guin
“The world was a terrible place, cruel, pitiless, dark as a bad dream. Not a good place to live. Only in books could you find pity, comfort, happiness – and love. Books loved anyone who opened them, they gave you security and friendship and didn’t ask anything in return; they never went away, never, not even when you treated them badly.”
― Cornelia Funke, The Inkheart Trilogy: Inkheart, Inkspell, Inkdeath
Wow! We read to find out who we are, to know we are not alone, to get inside other people’s souls and develop empathy. From the depths of your own sorrow you recognise the same anguish in an other. You connect, in James Baldwin’s words, with all who live and all who have lived.
Rudyard Kipling said, “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.” This quotation appears in the masthead of the first organisation we’d like to introduce you to. ReLIT is a new charity started by Dr Paula Byrne, and supported by several others including Professor Jonathan Bate and Dr Andrew Schofield. These three were course leaders and main contributors to a marvellous online course, Literature and Mental Health. This course has been extremely popular and both Wee Read directors took part; it will be running again – and it’s free – so head over to ReLIT for more details. ReLIT is also an excellent starting place to look at evidence for bibliotherapy’s value. While evidence in such an area is difficult to subject to quantitative analysis, rigour has been maintained. In a paper for the doctors’ journal The LancetProfessor Bate and Dr Schofield conclude:
Of course ReLit needs to, and will, pursue numbers as well as narratives, measuring the evidence. But in doing so one must be wary of falling into a mode of sub-Bagsterism*. The individual nature of each person will mean that we could never, and would never wish to, match poems to pathologies. We cannot create the bibliotherapeutical equivalent of the British National Formulary or the Drug Information Handbook. The most potent—and most moving and convincing— source of evidence will, ultimately, be the personal memoir or manifesto. Indeed, such testimony might just be the perfect example of “personalised medicine”.
*The paper begins:
Coined by the American essayist and minister, Samuel McChord Crothers, in a 1916 essay entitled “A Literary Clinic”, the term “bibliotherapy” is 100 years old this year. Crothers’ essay takes the form of a lighthearted interview with a fictional friend—a minister-cum-bibliotherapist called Bagster, who has recently converted his vestry into a “Bibliopathic Institute” for “Tired Business Men”, from where he dispenses his carefully selected literary prescriptions. Happily, he manages to score more hits than misses, covering a wide range of ills, from depression to unemployment. Crothers gently pokes fun at the very idea of matching a book to a particular patient or ailment—who after all could be sure that Thomas Carlyle could cure apathy, or George Bernard Shaw would be better for “morbid conditions” than “turpentine” and “Spanish flies”? But Bagster is more thoughtful than this. He ponders over texts. He asks what their “therapeutic value” might be for each individual case. Will they have “the nature of a soothing syrup” or that of “a mustard plaster”? And at the same time, Crothers satirises the 20th century’s glut of emerging alternative therapies, such as homeopathy and naturopathy. But humankind’s awareness of the therapeutic value of words dates back at least to the second millennium BC. According to the Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus, the entrance to the sacred library of Pharaoh Rameses II bore the inscription “Healing-place of the soul”. The great Renaissance essayist Michel de Montaigne argued that there were three possible cures for that most terrible of mental afflictions, loneliness: to have a lover, to have friends, and to read books.
(You can access the full article on the ReLIT site but we have found difficulty with a technical issue. You can go to the link we have provided and sign up free for Lancet which will give you access to this paper and many others).
You’ll notice when you visit ReLIT that Dr Schuman leads a group, The Poetry of Medicine which looks at ‘literature, medicine and the NHS’. The second group we have pleasure in referring you to is also well backed by the medical profession. Get into Reading was founded by Jane Davies who’d recently become a lecturer at Liverpool University. Her background and motivation led her to a strong belief that the power of literature should spread outside of academia. Starting with a small group in Birkenhead, she generated enthusiasm, support and resources so that today there are hundreds of reading groups, not only in the UK but as far away as Australia. And Scotland! The work she started from scratch has attracted great interest in the media, see for example here and here and here. The site will provide you with inspiration, show you how and where Get into Reading Groups practise, and catalogue some of the growing evidence for the value of reading serious and classical literature. It’s particularly heartening to see the project work with marginalised or somewhat neglected constituencies such as prisoners or dementia sufferers. By the way, Wee Read’s directors, Christine and Adrian, met on a Get into Reading residential training course!
As we noted above, there are different approaches to bibliotherapy. Unlike Get into Reading, for instance, many of Wee Read’s groups include writing as a response to literature. In this we are more in tune with Lapidus founded by Larry Butler to develop the benefits of words and wellbeing. Wee Read has close links with Lapidus Scotland: until recently Christine was a board member. She’s been involved with Lapidus themed writing groups for many years and her MSc thesis on bibliotherapy written while working at Glasgow Women’s Library was partly a development of her connections with Lapidus. Read more about Christine’s journey with bibliotherapy here. Christine was also involved in the development of Lapidus’s Words Work Well, a bibliotherapy toolkit, and she has done training sessions on this through Wee Read. You’ll find a plethora of articles in the toolkit to give you an enhanced understanding of bibliotherapy.
There is a growing number of papers and research projects relating to bibliotherapy. We’ll be collating some of them to add to our evidence base. There are organisations such as those mentioned whose websites are rich with experience, practice and research. You’ll also discover many initiatives worldwide, from Australia to Canada. At Bibliotherapy Australia, for instance, you can read about their programme, Words that Heal – based on six years of contemporary application of bibliotherapy using imaginative literature and data collected from facilitators and service users. It is underpinned by research from the fields of neuroscience, reader response, storytelling, positive psychology and the psychology of fiction. There are many other good things there including a history of bibliotherapy. In fact, bibliotherapy is not new at all. A doctoral thesis by Minique S.Dufour examines initiatives from the 1930s to the 1960s involving librarians, psychologists, psychiatrists and language arts specialists in the USA to promote the value of therapeutic reading.
We hope this section and the links you’ve followed give a good idea of the context in which we approach reading and writing as therapy. We’ll be adding more references connected with research, and we’ll also be discussing in detail some of the issues that come up in delivering our groups.
“Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me.”