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Bibliotherapy: a tale of spine specialists

Searching for a decent cup of coffee? You’d do well to start on page 83. Searching for Mr or Mrs Right? Try 283.

If by this point you’re feeling utterly perplexed, the antidote might be to read on.

The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin advertises itself as an ‘A-Z of Literary Remedies’. It’s a medical handbook offering cures (or temporary relief from the symptoms of) a multitude of life’s ailments, both emotional and physical. Although the remedies recommended within its pages are administered over the counter, it’s that of your local bookshop rather than pharmacy.

Behind the quirky reference book is an intriguing idea. It’s called bibliotherapy. According to Simona Lyons, a bibliotherapist and colleague of Berthoud and Elderkin, her job is to provide literary guidance and inspiration. ‘It’s a matter of getting a sense of what people read, how they read and why they read, and then matching the right book to the right person.’

This is an idea of interest to Lush. Poetry is often quoted in the labs and offices around Poole, and books have spread throughout the business, inspiring much over the years. Lush Libraries have been created in a number of offices to share book recommendations from people within Lush. There shelves are full of both non-fiction and fiction books on subjects ranging from business to poetry, amongst other things. One may have been chosen for its influence on the creation of a bath bomb, another for its business advice, and another for its personal inspiration.

The Library aims to spread a love of literature with as many possible. As well as sharing books with staff, the library was motivated by wondering about their reading habits – did they want to read more of a certain type of book, did they want to read more in general, or did they want to read books that better reflected their mood?

Simona’s prescriptions are fictional, yet they seem far from fictitious: ‘Reading great literature can be transformative; it’s enriching, life-affirming and inspiring, and allows the reader to reflect on their place in the world.

‘Sometimes clients come with particular issues, so for example if someone’s in a negative place emotionally, it could be that they’re looking for uplifting stories with reassuringly happy endings, but equally, they may be drawn to darker works which reflect their mindset. It’s not uncommon also for clients who are particularly pragmatic in their approach to daily life to express a desire to be transported to, and experience vicariously, a very different fictional world - a place that they are afraid to venture to in real life.

Anecdotal evidence that bibliotherapy works is hardly a new phenomenon. Take for example, a piece titled ‘A Literary Clinic’ by Samuel McChord Crothers, written for The Atlantic Monthly in September 1916. It details a visit to a friend - Bagster - and his new ‘Bibliopathic Institute. Book Treatment by Competent Specialists’. The experience struck Crothers, who wrote: ‘Here we have a stock of thoughts in such a variety of forms that they can be used, not only for food, but for medicine... A book may be of the nature of a soothing syrup or it may be the nature of a mustard plaster.’

Psychological studies are now catching up with this laden grapevine. Literary scholar Wolfgang Iser proposed an idea in 1978 that has stuck to this day: narrative fiction is capable of influencing the way that we think. In August 2014, research published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology went even further, suggesting that reading the bestselling Harry Potter books improves attitudes towards stigmatised groups such as refugees. The scholars (Vezzali, Stathi, Giovannini, Capozza, and Trifiletti) hypothesised that this was because of ‘perspective taking’: in reading you adopt the perspective of another person.

It’s a theory that makes the entry for xenophobia in The Novel Cure seem particularly apt: ‘If you find yourself fearing or even loathing those from countries other than your own, bathe in these books from foreign parts. Written by authors native to the settings, they reveal the essential sameness of us all beneath the skin, and will remind you of the humanity common to us all’.

Today NHS England supports the Reading Well scheme, a programme inspired by the therapeutic benefits of reading in supporting positive mental health. Currently, three curated book lists help young people, adults with common mental health conditions and those with dementia to manage their health and well-being.

The Novel Cure’s apothecary covers a broad spectrum of maladies. Its 444 (minus the index) pages can only reach so far though. Beyond self-medicating, there’s Simona.

Her path to bibliotherapy follows what looks - from the outside - to be a natural trajectory. She ran an independent bookshop in North London for over a decade. ‘I would recommend books to people on a daily basis. Customers would come in with all sorts of requests and needs and the challenge - and thrill - would be to find the right book each time.

‘I read constantly - it’s a passion and a necessity. I’m always reading with the thought of what I could recommend, and I tend to read under the radar in the hope of finding undiscovered gems.’

This is a risky endeavour and alongside running a bookshop (‘there’s so much choice, it’s like being a kid in a sweet shop! Simona admits that it’s the reason why she abandons books so easily. She give up on a huge number of those she picks up. ‘It could be ten pages in, it could be 150... I trust my instinct.’

Her sessions begin with ‘the here and now’, discussing the books that clients are reading, ‘how they choose what they read and something that they’ve really loved and also really not liked’. Then Simona’s instinct, backed up by a wealth of experience, kicks in and by the end of the chat she offers an instant prescription. ‘It’s the book that I’ve been mulling over during the course of our conversation, and one that I think would be a good starting point.’ Later, you receive your full prescription of five more.

The six books each client receives are antidotes. They are antidotes to the ailments they may have arrived with. They are also antidotes to the overwhelming experience of entering a bookshop. A place where being spoilt for choice can sometimes mean being paralysed by it, shaped by an industry within which UK publishers released 20 new titles each hour of 2014. This is more books per inhabitant than any other country in the world

Bibliotherapy answers the dilemma of what to read next in just 45 minutes.

After the six-part course of literary pills has been consumed, readers often find themselves surprised. Without realising, what they have actually received is a panacea: like relearning to walk, they look at their bookshelves in a different way, with a better understanding of not just what to read, but how to read too.


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