My Bibliotherapy Appointment at the School of Life

I’ve been interested in bibliotherapy for years, and I love The Novel Cure (see my review), the learned and playful advice book from Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, two of the bibliotherapists at Alain de Botton’s London School of Life. Earlier this month I had the tremendous opportunity to have a personalized bibliotherapy appointment with Ella Berthoud at the School of Life. She’d put out a call on Twitter for volunteers to come for a free session (usually £100) to be observed by a journalist from La Repubblica writing about bibliotherapy – the translation of The Novel Cure has sold remarkably well in Italy. The feature will be part of a special color supplement in February, and I look forward to seeing if my story makes the cut! That is, if I can decipher any of the Italian.

Now, you might not think I’m the kind of person who needs a bibliotherapy assessment since I already find 300+ books per year I want to read; I worried that too, and felt a little bit guilty, but in the end I couldn’t pass up the chance, and Ella was happy to have me.

I took my copy of The Novel Cure along for Ella to sign.

Before my appointment I’d been asked to complete a two-page questionnaire about my reading habits and likes/dislikes, along with what’s going on in my life in general (the ‘therapy’ aspect is real). Once we were set up in the basement therapy room with hot drinks, Ella asked me more about how I read. I’d told her my reading was about two-thirds print books and one-third e-books. Had I ever tried audiobooks or reading aloud, she asked? The answer to both of those is no, I’m afraid. There’s no obvious place for audiobooks in my life because I work from home. However, as I’d mentioned I haven’t been able to get through a Dickens novel in five years, Ella suggested I try listening to one – abridged, it can be more like eight hours long instead of 42, and you still get a terrific story. She also highly recommended New Yorker and Guardian podcasts based around short stories and discussion.

For reading aloud with my husband, Ella prescribed one short story per evening sitting – a way for me to get through short story collections, which I sometimes struggle to finish, and a different way to engage with books. We also talked about the value of rereading childhood favorites such as Watership Down and Little Women, which I haven’t gone back to since I was nine and 12, respectively. In this anniversary year, Little Women would be the ideal book to reread (and the new television adaptation is pretty good too, Ella thinks).

One other reading habit Ella is adamant about is keeping a physical reading journal in which you record the title of each book you read, where you read it, and about a paragraph of thoughts about it. It’s not meant to be a comprehensive response to every book; more like an aide-mémoire that you can get off the shelf in years to come to remind yourself of what you thought about a book. Specifically, Ella thinks writing down the location of your reading (e.g., on a train to Scotland) allows you to put yourself back in the moment. I tend to note where I bought a book, but not necessarily where I read it – for that, I would probably have to cross-reference my annual book list against a calendar. Since 2010 I’ve kept my book lists and responses in computer files, and I also keep full records via Goodreads, but I can see why having a physical journal would be a good back-up as well as a more pleasant representation of my reading. I’ll think about starting one.

Various books came up over the course of our conversation: Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone [appearance in The Novel Cure: The Ten Best Novels to Cure the Xenophobic, but Ella brought it up because of the medical theme], Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume [cure: ageing, horror of], and Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, a nonfiction guide to thinking creatively about your life, chiefly through 20-minute automatic writing exercises every morning. We agreed that it’s impossible to dismiss a whole genre, even if I do find myself weary of certain trends, like dystopian fiction (I introduced Ella to Claire Vaye Watkins’ Gold Fame Citrus, one of my favorite recent examples).

I came away with two instant prescriptions: Heligoland by Shena Mackay [cure: moving house], about a shell-shaped island house that used to be the headquarters of a cult. It’s a perfect short book, Ella tells me, and will help dose my feelings of rootlessness after moving more than 10 times in the last 10 years. She also prescribed Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry [cure: ageing parents] and an eventual reread of Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. As we discussed various other issues, such as my uncertainty about having children, Ella said she could think of 20 or more books to recommend me. “That’s a good thing, right?!” I asked.

Before I left, I asked Ella if she would ever prescribe nonfiction. She said they have been known to do so, usually if it’s written in a literary style (e.g. Robert Macfarlane and Alain de Botton). We chatted about medical memoirs and reading with the seasons for a little while, and then I thanked her and headed on my way. I walked around the corner to Skoob Books but, alas, didn’t find any of the books Ella had mentioned during our session. On the way back to the Tube station, though, I stopped at Judd Books and bought several secondhand and remaindered goodies, including these two:

(Imagine my surprise when I spotted The Year of the Hare in The Novel Cure under midlife crisis! Age seemed to be the theme of the day.)

As soon as I got back from London I ordered secondhand copies of Heligoland, Jitterbug Perfume and The Artist’s Way, and borrowed Family Matters from the public library the next day. Within a few days four further book prescriptions arrived for me by e-mail. Ella did say that her job is made harder when her clients read a lot, so kudos to her for prescribing books I’d not read – with the one exception of Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End, which I love.

I’ve put in another order for Maggie and Me, the memoir by Damian Barr, plus (for reading aloud) Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives by David Eagleman and the collected short stories of Saki. I’m also keen to find The Victorian Chaise-Longue by Marghanita Laski, Ella’s final prescription, but as the Persephone Books reprint is pricey at the moment I may hold off and hope to chance upon a secondhand copy later in the year. Ella has been very generous with her recommendations, especially considering that I didn’t pay a penny. I certainly have plenty to be getting on with for now! I’ll report back later on in the year when I’ve had the chance to read some of these prescriptions.

The prescribed books I have gotten hold of so far.
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43 thoughts on “My Bibliotherapy Appointment at the School of Life

  1. This sounds fantastic. I had a brilliant experience at Mr B’s Reading Spa in Bath, but this has slightly more of a bibliotherapy angle with all the prescriptions! (I also can’t get along with audiobooks or podcasts, & not sure I ever will).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fun! I liked Mr B’s the one time I went there. (Do you know The Bookshop Band?)

      It’s hard for me to think of a time I would ever pick up an audio book. A long road trip in America, perhaps! I just don’t seem to have the holes in my schedule where one would go. If I were to take up more exercise, I might look into podcasts to make double use of the time.

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      1. I’d never heard of The Bookshop Band but
        I’ve just googled them and they sound great!

        If I’m listening to something while I’m exercising, it’s reserved Zombies Run time 🙂

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    2. Ah, they got their start at Mr B’s in around 2010 and were the in-house band for years. Alas, they moved up to Wigtown, Scotland last year. I got to see them play live a few times before they left the south of England, and I have all their albums and listen to them all the time. (I’ve become pretty evangelistic!) My husband and I are about to book a short break to Wigtown in April. Though it’s not for the specific purpose of stalking them, I will keep an eye out if they happen to not be away on tour at the time 😉

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  2. I think the idea of noting WHERE you read a book is an excellent idea! And I love the sound of you reading aloud with your husband in the evenings! I might suggest that to mine although our reading choices just couldn’t be more different!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I must confess we haven’t started doing it yet — but it’s just a matter of setting aside the time and getting into the habit. The selections in To Read Aloud are labelled by the amount of time they should take to read, ranging from 3 to 15 minutes. Anyone can spare a few minutes! 🙂

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    1. One could argue that with all the algorithms, blogs, social media etc. out there recommending books, spending money on recommendations isn’t necessary. But there really was something special about how personalized the service was.

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  3. What a fascinating post! I’d never heard of bibliotherapy before. But then I live in a country that has high illiteracy, and a dearth of libraries and bookstores.I am tickled to learn that you visited a shop called Skoob – fun name! I also like the idea of noting where you read your books, ditto a para about how you felt during/after the reading. I keep a book record journal to keep track of my reading, and draft reviews & posts, but but don’t note the where/feelings data. I shall give it a try & see what emerges.

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    1. I don’t recall whether you’re based in the US or UK, but alas, the situation seems to be the same in both: literacy is not at a universally high standard, and libraries are suffering from budget cuts.

      Skoob = books backwards 🙂 Pretty great, isn’t it?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I live in South Africa. A combo of 1st/3rd World. If you visit my despatchesfromtimbuktu.wordpress blog, there’s a new post on the topic Describe your country in 5 words, that will give context to what I said.
        Yup: I realised that skoob was etc. etc. that’s why I was so tickled!

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  4. This is so interesting! I’m glad she gave you some titles that fit you specifically and many of them sound fascinating to me too. Would you say The Novel Cure is super dense? I have a bad track record with non-fiction books that are heavy. It sounds good, but I have major TBR stacks right now. Hoping you find a wonderful fit for you in her recommendations!

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    1. No, The Novel Cure is not at all dense. It’s in short, lively entries of 1-2 pages each, and you can either keep the book on your coffee table or bedside table and skip around as the mood takes you, or read it all the way through. I did both! The problem is that it will undoubtedly extend your TBR…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Sounds rather fun though I didn’t exactly understand why she recommended you to read aloud – what was the point of that? I tried keeping a physical journal last year but it didn’t last long mainly because I wasn’t entirely sure why I was keeping one. But I like the simplicity of the approach recommended to you. I’m off to find a suitably attractive book in which to scribble

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  6. What fun! I would be seriously tempted to pay for this service just because I’d want to see what books they’d recommend. I’ll be interested in hearing what you think of them all once you’ve read them! The only one I’ve read is Cutting For Stone, which I loved! I do think you’d like the medical aspect of it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was fascinating to see what she came up with for me. There were lots of other suggestions in her follow-up e-mails, too. It was so fun chatting books!

      I have a copy of Cutting for Stone in a box in America and look forward to retrieving it on our next trip over.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I love that you managed to recommend a book to Ella amongst all that! How interesting! I have no place for audiobooks in my life either, but Matthew and I enjoyed reading some of Iris Murdoch’s “The Bell” to each other – I forget why we stopped.

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    1. I also introduced her to Howard Norman 🙂

      I think a whole novel could be overwhelming — it must take so much longer to read aloud. That’s why the books Ella recommended are composed of very short stories and nonfiction extracts.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I love this post!! I’ve ordered The Novel Cure from another branch and it should be here in a few days. What a great opportunity you had to have your own session. I love the idea about writing where you read a book, but these days most of the books I read are read in sessions in three places: my couch, my bed, or in the break room at work. Not much divergence from that! 🙂

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  9. I’ve dipped into the novel cure, but not with any serious attempt at bibliotherapy intended. Your personal session does sound wonderful though. I have the radio on all the time, but sometimes listen to podcasts instead while doing other things, but audiobooks – not for me. I too love the idea about noting where you read a book – but my list would mainly say ‘bed, bed, bed, lounge, bed, bed, lounge, bed, bed ….’ with just the occasional ‘train’! 🙂

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    1. There’s a particular New Yorker podcast series she recommended where a current author chooses their favourite short story from the NY archive and reads it, then has a discussion with the host about why they chose it, the themes, etc. It does sound unique. My problem is just knowing when would be the time to put such a thing on.

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  10. Such a fascinating post and I’m now slightly envious of the experience! Also slightly scared at the thought of another long list of tbrs! Seriously though, you’ve just reminded me that I have The Novel Cure on my kindle and had totally forgotten about it. Time to look more closely!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes indeed. I suspect I bought this (pre-Christmas) in a somewhat thoughtless rush. On the face of it, it isn’t the sort of book that works on Kindle. But I’ll give it a go 🙂

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  11. We both tend to record our reading choices and thoughts on Goodreads, but I can see the appeal of a personal journal, and -yes- the place and circumstances in which the book was read. This was a fascinating post and I wouldn’t mind a spot of bibliotherapy myself. One thing I shan’t be doing though, is reading to my husband, or having him read to me. Just …. no.

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    1. The only time I can remember reading aloud (apart from in classes or Bible study groups) was Mark Twain stories with my mother when I was an adolescent. Alas, my hubby and I haven’t started doing this yet — evenings always seem to fill up with other stuff — but I do intend it to happen soon.

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  12. I thought The Novel Cure was fun too, and I think it’s great that you’ve shared the experience of your session. It’s certainly interesting and I’m sure it was a bit more of a challenge for her given the breadth of your reading. I’ve read/adopted some of your prescribed books/habits but the book that stands out to me is Jitterbug Perfume, which is a real favourite of mine (but, which, I admit, requires a particular mood/approach) and the habit is the revisiting of children’s books, which I find very satisfying too. As for the podcasts, is there something else you’re normally doing while busy with chores? I find that’s the perfect time to listen, although because I am not a five-star-housekeeper, I am perpetually behind with listening (which is also true even when I am keeping up with my daily walks, which I have not been doing recently).

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    1. I’ve failed with another Robbins novel before (Still Life with Woodpecker), thought that was probably 6-8 years ago now. What mood would you say is ideal? 🙂

      Hmm, my housekeeping time is negligible. The only things I keep up with reasonably well are vacuuming, which isn’t conducive to listening to anything, and laundry, which once you’ve started it going doesn’t require more than a few minutes of hanging clothes on drying racks. Exercise would be the better window for listening if I could make myself do some!

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