Textual Healing, Baby, is Good for Me

I enjoy a self-help book every now and then. I especially enjoy going to the self-help section of Chapters and chuckling at the titles: Awaken the Giant WithinWho Moved My Cheese?You Mean I’m Not Lazy, Stupid, or Crazy?!. (Yes, I added an Oxford comma to that last one. No, I will not apologize.) I find these books empowering, even if they are by nature a little preachy.
It is this preachiness, this excessive optimism, that I suppose drives some people away from the self-help sections of their local bookshops. And, of course, some people’s distaste for self-help books may be supported by distaste for the kinds of people who read self-help books. I mean, have you been to that section lately? It’s that part of the store that’s frequently blocked by New Age hippies.
I’m joking, I’m joking.
Self-help books do seem to divide people, though. You have people like me, who appreciate the pep talks every once in a while. Then you have people like my sister, who would rather not have the world sugarcoated and wrapped tidily in a glittery bow, thankyouverymuch. I can dig it.
After all, self-help books are not the only kinds of books that can help readers get through tough times. Any book can help, really. It’s just a matter of finding the right material for the current situation. This is where bibliotherapy comes in.

Natalia Tukhareli defines bibliotherapy as “the practice of using books to help people cope with their mental, physical, developmental[,] or social problems. Together with other similar practices, such as art therapy, dance therapy, music therapy, and play therapy, bibliotherapy emphasizes the idea of the healing, consoling power of art through its various forms. Today, almost one hundred years since the term bibliotherapy was first introduced to therapists, bibliotherapy has been effectively implemented by a wide range of professionals, including librarians, teachers and social workers.”

But how does bibliotherapy work? Tukhareli’s definition, like most others, doesn’t actually explain how books facilitate healing. Maybe writers think it’s a given. Regardless, I’m gonna take some time to explain why I think there’s “consoling power” in books, just so we’re all on the same page.

As I wrote above, I love a good self-help book. Especially the cheesy pep-talk ones that tell me how special and perfect I am. And Gary Chapman’s Five Love Languages? That book has had more of a lasting influence on me than any other book I’ve ever read.

This said, I don’t find self-help books very helpful when I actually have a problem.For example, when I was experiencing some pretty extreme anxiety during my undergrad and was told by a doctor to read Jon Kabat-Zinn’s The Mindful Way Through Depression, I found the text condescending and anger-inducing. And that accompanying CD with mindfulness exercises? It mocked me. Kabat-Zinn just didn’t seem to get what I was experiencing.

I’ve reread The Mindful Way in a saner state of mind, and it’s actually an alright book. But my anxiety-ridden self was so irrational that the book didn’t speak to me then like it did when I was feeling a bit better. When I was feeling anxious, I didn’t want someone to speak to me top-down. I just wanted someone to meet me where I was. I wanted to feel less alone in my sadness.

Katie Engelhart has written that “at [bibliotherapy’s] core is a simple concept: that literature can treat a host of mental malaises; that reading can be deeply healing, and in predictable ways.” Susan Elderkin, one of the authors of The Novel Cure (more on that below), expands on this idea, explaining that “we have found – somewhat to our surprise at first – that those who suffer from serious depression will want to read something, if they can read at all, in which someone is suffering from serious depression also – it helps to feel that someone is willing to take you by the hand and keep you company in that bleak and awful space… books that are too light and jolly will only irritate and compound the feeling of isolation.” Amen, sister. And so it was that Michael Turner’s American Whiskey Bar and Charles Bukowski’s numerous poetry collections became anthems to my anxiety, affirming – and helping me come to terms with – the way I was feeling. To be super corny about it, these words were there when it felt like no one else was.

The School of Life operates a bibliotherapy program, where “you’ll explore your relationship with books so far and be asked to explore new literary directions.” Here’s a video of the wonderful Alain de Botton explaining the program (sorry, WordPress won’t let me embed this video into the post).

And, because I have a bit of a crush on Alain de Botton, here’s another video of him describing the power of literature:

Although The School of Life’s bibliotherapy program is more of a personalized recommendation service than a service to help you get through tough times, the bibliotherapists in charge recently published The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies, which is a beautiful book that screams Christmas gift. “This is a medical handbook – with a difference,” The Novel Cure’s introduction begins. “Our medicines are not something you’ll find at the chemist, but at the bookshop, in the library, or downloaded onto your electronic reading device. We are bibliotherapists, and the tools of our trade are books. Our apothecary contains Balzacian balms and Tolstoyan tourniquets, the salves of Saramago and the purges of Perec and Proust.” The book prescribes literature for every “ailment”: Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Rohinton Mistry’s Family Matters will be there for you when you’re facing Aging Parents, Michel Faber’s Under the Skin remedies Carnivorousness… And ever find yourself “determinedly ohasing [sic] after a woman even though she’s a nun?” Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion is for you. This book really does have something for everyone.

Bibliotherapy has been picking up a lot mainstream steam as of late. In the UK, for example, The Reading Agency, the Society of Chief Librarians, and The Association of Senior Children’s and Education Librarians have just started their Reading Well for Young People campaign. This campaign aims to provide 13- to 18-year-olds with recommended reading lists that address things like bullying, school stress, and depression and self-harm. These reading lists are compiled under the guidance of mental health experts, who assert that the selected books can be prescribed by doctors, counsellors, and school nurses, and reading lists will soon be made available to public libraries. A list of some of the selected books is included in this article from The Guardian. A book called “Don’t Let Emotions Run Your Life for Teens” is on there for those suffering from OCD, and High School Leah’s favourite young-adult novel, Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower, is on there for anxiety. There are non-fiction and fiction books included for each issue, so teens can get various points of view. They can also read quite a few of the books in public without feeling the stigma one would inevitably encounter while reading a book called “Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome: A User’s Guide to Adolescence” on the bus.

Want to get a taste of bibliotherapy for yourself? Check out LitTherapy, which doles out solid prescriptions. And, if you find yourself getting stoked about this kind of time, you can get “certified” as a biblio/poetry therapist through the International Federation for Bibilo/Poetry Therapy, although I can’t guarantee that there’s anyone out there who will take your certification seriously.

Just want to learn more about bibliotherapy? The Reader has tons of detailed and readable reports, including an especially interesting report on how reading groups have been used to support people with dementia. Canada’s National Reading Campaign also has a bunch of reports available, covering a wide range of topics. Canada is also home to the Canadian Applied Literature Association, which facilitates research that explores literature and stories as means for therapy, pedagogy, and activism.

I don’t think bibliotherapy is going to go away any time soon. With more and more people looking for alternative health options (e.g. hot yogis and those anti-vaccinators), bibliotherapy seems to fit nicely into the current cultural climate. So why not give it a try? A new book is cheaper than a pair of lululemon pants.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

A couple of weeks ago, I was poking around Facebook when I stumbled across a video that one of my friends had posted: “How Art Can Save Your Soul,” by Alain de Botton. The only time I’d ever heard de Botton’s name before was when I worked at #OversizedBookstore, shelving A Week at the Airport. Every time I shelved Airport, I would look at it and think to myself how much I would like to read it.

It never happened.

So now I know almost nothing about Alain de Botton, other than that I assume he once spent a week at an airport and then wrote about the experience.

After watching “How Art Can Save Your Soul,” though, I’m back to wanting to read A Week at the Airport. Why? Because de Botton is brilliant.

Why am I sharing this with you? What does de Botton’s lecture about art have to do with book history? Everything, I argue. de Botton’s points don’t just apply to visual art, but also to book art. And when I say book art, I’m not just referring to the miniatures you see in Medieval manuscripts, or the woodcuts you see in incunabula – I’m referring to everything related to any book’s physicality. I’m talking about the book as art, not just because it includes drawings, but because it is a piece of art in itself.

At around 6:50, de Botton quotes/paraphrases Mark Rothko‘s response to a Time Magazine interviewer who is trying to understand what Rothko’s art does: “Look, what I’m trying to do with my works of art is… you’ve got sadness in you, I’ve got sadness in me, and my works of art are places where the two sadnesses can meet and therefore both of us need to feel less sad.” For Rothko, art serves as a means for emotional connection. However, as museums presented – and continue to present – his work, they failed to provide what de Botton calls “a productive frame with which to enter a relationship with that art.”

Now, to tie this back to book history.

The longer I study book history, the clearer it becomes to me that some scholars have completely lost (or rid themselves of?) the “frame” that lets them enter relationships with the books – the art – they’re analyzing. In an attempt to intellectualize a book, the scholar sometimes forgets to acknowledge that the book may have been made to be admired rather than intellectualized.

But, as Jean-Claude Carrière asserts in This Is Not the End of the Book (on page 159, for all you keeners!), “A work of art isn’t created a masterpiece, it becomes one… We can of course explain the great influence that Cervantes had on Kafka. But we can also, as Gerard Genette has conclusively shown, say that Kafka has had an influence on Cervantes. If I read Kafka before reading Cervantes, then through me and without my knowing it, Kafka will impact my reading of Quixote.” What Carrière is saying is that, while we do need to take time to appreciate the book as it was intended, our appreciations of books are inevitably influenced by other established interpretations. “Over time,” Umberto Eco agrees (also on page 159), “every book is overlaid with all the interpretations that have been made of it. We don’t read the same Shakespeare that Shakespeare wrote. Our Shakespeare is much richer than the Shakespeare that was read at the time. A masterpiece isn’t a masterpiece until it is well known and has absorbed all the interpretations to which is has given rise, which in turn make it what it is.”

Confused? Sorry – even I’m a little confused now. But I think what this all comes down to is just that we should always consider what the books we study were made for. Sure, we should consider established interpretations – after all, those interpretations help us understand what we’re studying. However, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that illuminated manuscripts ware made to dazzle, or that the Gutenberg Bibles are all uniquely illustrated and each copy thus evokes a different emotional response. These objects are for more than just studying. They’re for looking at. They’re for appreciating.

A couple of summers ago, I took a course on illuminated manuscripts. Our final assignment was to write a paper about what we thought the Book of Kells‘ intended use was, based on its physicality. Of course, we were working with a facsimile, but it was a pretty darn good facsimile, with holes in it and everything. However, when doing this assignment, I later found that I had been so determined to write my essay that I forgot to actually take some time to really look at the book. I never gave myself permission to establish a relationship with its incredible art. In short, I missed out on the experience of really seeing the Book of Kells. I missed out on the experience of experiencing it.

That’s what I’m getting at.

Don’t ever lose the frame that lets you enter relationships with the books you study. If you do, there’s really no point in studying them at all.