This is a fascinating piece in The New Yorker about bibliotherapy: reading books to deal with life’s ailments. Per the piece, the most common ailments people tend to bring to a bibliotherapist (who recommends books on various topics that are not in the self-help genre) are the life-juncture transitions, being stuck in a rut in your career, feeling depressed in your relationship, or suffering bereavement.
Berthoud and Elderkin trace the method of bibliotherapy all the way back to the Ancient Greeks, “who inscribed above the entrance to a library in Thebes that this was a ‘healing place for the soul.’ ” The practice came into its own at the end of the nineteenth century, when Sigmund Freud began using literature during psychoanalysis sessions. After the First World War, traumatized soldiers returning home from the front were often prescribed a course of reading. “Librarians in the States were given training on how to give books to WWI vets, and there’s a nice story about Jane Austen’s novels being used for bibliotherapeutic purposes at the same time in the U.K.,” Elderkin says. Later in the century, bibliotherapy was used in varying ways in hospitals and libraries, and has more recently been taken up by psychologists, social and aged-care workers, and doctors as a viable mode of therapy.
Bibliotherapy, if it existed at all, tended to be based within a more medical context, with an emphasis on self-help books. But we were dedicated to fiction as the ultimate cure because it gives readers a transformational experience.
If you’re interested in learning more, perhaps check out The Novel Cure: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, the therapists mentioned in the piece.