A natural therapy that can help a variety of conditions, is prescribed by the NHS and is available day or night, even free of charge? We’re talking about ‘bibliotherapy’ – the idea that books have a healing quality. It’s not just about self-help books, either. It’s any reading, from poems to historical tomes and bodice rippers to thrillers. Books that console and divert us when we need it most – especially now.
Bibliotherapy has been supported by the NHS since 2013, when The Reading Agency launched the Reading Well Books On Prescription Programme. Most libraries now stock reading lists put together by medical experts to help with mental health, dementia, longterm conditions and the challenges faced by youths. You can be referred by a GP or access the books yourself, and this year the scheme was extended to children’s books. The NHS scheme leans on self-help titles but much other bibliotherapy focuses on fiction.
In his latest book, Reading For life, Professor Philip Davis presents an anthology of poems and extracts, and looks at how they have helped people. Many of us think of reading as an individual activity – and it can be – but Davis is interested in the proven benefits of reading aloud in groups following many years in partnership with charity The Reader, which brings literature to challenged communities and isolated individuals.
While Davis has nothing against easy reads, he has found that surprising or challenging ourselves (say, with a short poem) can bring the biggest boost. ‘The difficult thing, or the thing that doesn’t come automatically, can give you more satisfaction and we have the brain scans to prove it,’ he says. ‘There’s a reward mechanism that kicks in when you’re doing something difficult but worthwhile.’
Ella Berthoud, a bibliotherapist and co-author of The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies, says that mixing up the way you consume books can help. ‘Audiobooks are very soothing, they take you back to a childlike state,’ she says. ‘and virtual book groups are really proliferating now, which is a great way to share literature. ‘However, I’m always trying to persuade people to read aloud with each other. It’s a very generous thing to do, both for the reader and the person giving their attention. It’s free and it can be done over a video call.’
‘ENJOY OR ENDURE’?
Sales of books about pandemics are up, but why are we doing it to ourselves? ‘A book can help you escape reality,’ says Ella, ‘But sometimes people want to escape to a parallel place and lots of people have been reading Daniel Defoe’s a Journal of the Plague year.’ Reading about he bubonic plague in 1665 is helping some of us remember that this has all happened before. More people are also picking up Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven, about a pandemic far more devastating than ours. ‘It’s interesting with novels which are quite similar to what we’re going through but much worse,’ says Ella. ‘Some people love it because it helps them to think, “this is not that bad”, but for other people it’s too much. it totally depends on the individual.’