Fiction can serve a lot of different purposes. It can entertain us, inform us, uplift us and move us. But can it counsel us as well? According to writers, researchers and psychologists, literature can play an important role in treating depression, relationship problems, anxiety and stress.
The role of literature as therapy is a theme in The Little Paris Bookshop, in which the protagonist is a bookseller who solves customers’ problems by selling them book that is appropriate to their malady. While the book is fictional, the idea is not so far-fetched. The use of books as therapy, or bibliotherapy, extends back centuries to ancient Egypt, when an inscription above the royal chamber where books were stored by King Ramses II read “House of Healing for the Soul.”
The term bibliotherapy was coined in 1916 to describe a “process in which specific literature, both fiction and non-fiction, was prescribed as medicine for a variety of ailments.” At the time, books were used in psychiatric hospitals as a treatment for the mentally ill, and towards the end of World War I, libraries were established in veteran hospitals to help treat emotional trauma in former soldiers.
More recently, bibliotherapy has moved out of institutions and into the community, including libraries, general practice, psychology and education. So what is it about books that can reach into our hearts so deeply and change the way we think and feel? Is it the characters in whom we see something of ourselves, thereby helping us to understand our own lives and problems? Do we see new possibilities for our behaviour in fiction, or are we consoled that we are not the only ones who understand what it is to go through certain life challenges? Conversely, does reading free us from our own, limited and bias-ridden perspective, opening our eyes and minds to the reality of others? Or perhaps is it just the distraction that these stories provide that takes our minds off our own problems. Maybe it is a bit of each.
In 2009 cognitive neuropsychologist David Lewis studied the impact of reading on stress and relaxation. According to his research, heart rate and muscle tension tests revealed that just six minutes of reading reduced stress by 68 per cent. This impact was greater than listening to music (61 per cent), having a cup of tea or coffee (54 per cent) or going for a walk (42 per cent). Dr Lewis believed that reading enabled the study participants to become distracted, and enter an altered state, easing tension in the muscles and heart.
In my own life, I have found books to have been an important source of calm, distraction and perspective at different times in my life; you could say, a kind of therapy. As a teenager, at a time notorious for the emergence of doubt and insecurity, The Beauty Myth provided me with an invaluable perspective on beauty in our society which continues to influence me well into my mid-30s. Naomi Wolf’s book about the beauty industry and how it manufactures self-hatred to make women buy expensive remedies for their “flaws” reassured me that many of the insecurities I had about myself were not as important as they seemed. It opened my eyes to the source of my doubts, which helped me to dismiss or deal with them.
Similarly, my sister-in-law was surprised by the way a book about an eating disorder, Brave Girl Eating, opened up her eyes to the cult of thinness in her own world. It is not hard to imagine the book playing some role in helping women gain a healthier perspective in the same way.
Reading fiction also helped carry me through a difficult time in the early days of motherhood. During night time feeds, books provided me with a sense of calm and contentment, despite my exhaustion, fear of the unknown and the almost overwhelming sense of responsibility for this little life. While my body, my schedule and my heart had changed with the birth of my first child, I still had the books that I had always turned to in times of change or uncertainty. Sometimes, just the tone of a book can help in difficult times. Whenever I have felt sad or anxious, I have tended to turn to the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series to cheer me up and give me some perspective. It is hard to remain melancholy when you read about Mme Precious Ramotswe’s experiences and outlook on life:
“It was time to take the pumpkin out of the pot and eat it. In the final analysis, that was what solved these big problems of life. You could think and think and get nowhere, but you still had to eat your pumpkin. That brought you down to earth. That gave you a reason for going on. Pumpkin.”
In his recent talk in Melbourne, Alain de Botton spoke about the ability of books to counsel us in love. He said books, tv and movies had long shaped our expectations, particularly in relation to love and relationships. Through his book, On Love, he attempted to present a more realistic representation of relationships, to counter the more pervasive images of ideal love, which are impossible for real couples to live up to. And De Botton’s School of Life provides people with guidance on finding books that might help them deal with their problems in love, work, politics, self, anxiety and free time. It prescribes Madame Bovary for boredom in a relationship, presumably presenting a way not to deal with the problem, The Death of the Moth to treat a feeling insignificance and Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo for a lack of self confidence. Renowned American educator Charles William Eliot summed up his belief in the therapeutic benefits of reading.
“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.”
Something as simple as reading fiction will never solve all the problems of the mind, and more serious problems call for more complex forms of medical and psychological support. But perhaps books can be a part of our arsenal, helping us see our lives and behaviour more clearly, and making us more understanding and accepting of the actions of others. They can cheer us up, calm us down, smooth out our relationships and soothe our souls. And, at the very least they can distract us, helping us forget our problems of a while.