The Novel Cure—Bibliotherapy in Action

A good book, read at the right moment, should leave you uplifted, inspired, energized and eager for more. With so many books to choose from, what’s the point of reading even one more that leaves you cold?

I’ve mentioned my interest in bibliotherapy before. Well, for anyone new to the concept or interested in finding out more, The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, two of the bibliotherapists at London’s School of Life, is an accessible introduction. Subtitled “An A–Z of Literary Remedies,” this is a learned and at times tongue-in-cheek book of advice about what fiction to read if you’re suffering from any sort of malady – physical, psychological, or imagined.

novel cure ukThe alphabetical format and “see also” asides make it more like a cross-referenced encyclopedia than a book to read straight through, though I tried it both ways. Initially I flipped through at random, letting one entry take me to another related one and so on, but after a while I went back to the start and caught up on unread entries to finish within a year.

“It helps enormously at times of stress to read about other people who are going through similar things; watching how other people cope or fail to cope will make you feel less alone and give you strength,” the authors write to introduce the “cancer, caring for someone with” entry. I found this to be true when my sister lost her husband to cancer last year. She had never been a reader – apart from celebrity magazines – but in the past year she’s read nearly 90 books, many of them memoirs about illness and bereavement. Books are how I’ve always made sense of the world, so it’s been incredibly gratifying to see her turn to them as well. There are plenty of recommendations I’ll pass on to her from this book, especially “death of a loved one” (After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer) and “widowed, being” (The Same Sea by Amos Oz and Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson).

You’ll be amazed at the range of conditions and circumstances for which the book offers prescriptions. Newly retired? “Bucolic and tranquil, The Enigma of Arrival [by V.S. Naipaul] will encourage you to take stock of your life and enjoy the unfolding of new possibilities.” Workaholic? “Immerse your desiccated soul in something very simple, very rustic, very small. We suggest [Thomas] Hardy’s gentlest, most innocent novel, Under the Greenwood Tree.” Two sections that felt particularly relevant to me as a vertically challenged freelancer were “short, being” and “tax return, fear of doing.” Meanwhile I’ll be pointing my husband to “baldness,” “flying, fear of,” “stress” and “tinnitus” (poor chap). But some of these entries surely resulted from the authors thinking “hey, here’s a great book we have to mention,” and then coming up with a category to fit it into, like “determinedly chasing after a woman even when she’s a nun” for In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje.

I think I prefer this U.S. cover.
I think I prefer this U.S. cover.

Indeed, there’s a certain levity to this book that I think some reviewers have missed. These aren’t all entirely serious suggestions, though they are all worthwhile books. I especially liked the sections where the authors incorporate pastiche of the book in question. A piece recommending Pamela by Samuel Richardson is in the form of an old-fashioned letter, for example, while “single, being” apes Bridget Jones’s diary entries. They even imitate certain authors’ prose style, as in “Who poses questions without question marks and observes the subtle changes in the light with exquisite brevity.” Answer: J.P. Donleavy, apparently.

The book is also a great source of top ten lists (I’m working through their novels for thirty-somethings) and advice for how to deal with reading crises (e.g. “busy to read, being too” and “giving up halfway through, tendency to”). My only criticism of the book – and this is one I level against many examples from the ‘books about books’ genre – is that there’s a fair bit of plot summary, sometimes so much so that it puts me off reading a book rather than whets my appetite for it.

It’s a bit belated (or early) for suggesting this as a Christmas gift for a book lover, but perhaps you can hand it over as a birthday gift or an anytime present – even to yourself. I got my copy on Amazon for £4, quite a bargain for a book I’ll be returning to again and again over the years.

My rating: 4 star rating


Do you agree that novels have the power to cure, or at least help with, problems?

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21 thoughts on “The Novel Cure—Bibliotherapy in Action

  1. Well done, Beck. I’m a firm believer in bibliotherapy, first-hand and in teaching. Many years ago I learned of bibliotherapy in Read-alouds in the classroom. When reading “The Big Wave” by Pearl S. Buck, to third graders right after recess, I started weeping and had to stop. Not a single child moved or said a thing. It was momentous. That book has a special place in my heart. I think I’ll reread it!

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    1. I don’t think I’d ever heard of that story. I see that it’s about a tidal wave in Japan — that would still resonate today given the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 and the earthquake/tsunami in 2011. I wonder if their reaction was more to do with the power of the book or the shock of seeing an adult give in to emotion in public! Either way, it showed them that stories are important. One notion underlying bibliotherapy is that reading fiction can increase your empathy for other people and situations, something research has supported.

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  2. I love the idea of bibliotherapy, and I believe it can work because it makes sense to me that it can, but I really can’t say so for sure because I don’t have much experience beyond my own reading. I would love to use my husband as an experiment for this, but he’s not much of a reader so I haven’t convinced him to read any of the books yet. For him, I’d probably start with stress or anxiety. Sigh.
    I’d like to read through the list of books for people in their 40s.
    One thing I worry about with this book is that it will become out-of-date. It must drive the authors crazy when good books come out that they would loved to have included in their book but it’s too late. (Can you tell that it would drive me crazy, if I were them?)
    My copy of the book is like the first picture, except bright red, which I like.

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    1. I agree it would be frustrating to come across new or forgotten books and think “argh, that would have been perfect for category x!” Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust series is similar — with those books I actually did something I would normally never do and starting pencilling in additional books that I thought would fit on particular lists.

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  3. Great and very interesting review, Rebecca. I had no interest in this until I attended Ella Berthoud’s Skype session at Jersey Literature Festival. How the book came about and was eventually put together was really interesting. I’ve started dipping into it but am quite keen to read it in a linear fashion.

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  4. I’m a newbie at your blog, so I’m stopping in to say hello! I love the idea of bibliotherapy as a means of finding ways to deal with experiences other people have been through. I’m putting the book on my TBR list for the year. On a more superficial note, all of their covers look great (having had a peek on book depository).

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