This past week, the New Yorker posed the question, “Can Reading Make You Happier?”
I think we know it can, right? Reading can make you many good things: Happier, healthier, more hopeful, empathetic, open, accepting, adventurous, imaginative. But, as writer Ceridwen Dovey considered, is it serendipity or intention that brings the right book into our life at the right time?
Davey was gifted a remote session with a bibliotherapist at the London headquarters of the School of Life, an organization co-founded by philosopher Alain de Botton, devoted to developing emotional intelligence through culture.
“I have to admit that at first I didn’t really like the idea of being given a reading ‘prescription,'” she writes. “But the session was a gift, and I found myself unexpectedly enjoying the initial questionnaire about my reading habits that the bibliotherapist, Ella Berthoud, sent me.”
When asked what was occupying her mind at the moment, Dovey told Berthoud, “I am worried about having no spiritual resources to shore myself up against the inevitable future grief of losing somebody I love.” After digging deeper, Berthoud sent her a list of recommended reading: The Guide by R.K. Narayan, The Case for God by Karen Armstrong, and Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow, among others.
Other clients come to Berthoud and her team in the midst of grief, at major life junctures, or on the cusp of retirement, with many free years ahead of them. The bibliotherapy service is so beloved, Berthoud and co-founder Susan Elderkin wrote The Novel Cure, a list of 700+ books to help with nearly any emotional or physical ailment.
“Bibliotherapy”—using books and written word as a form of therapy—was first coined in the early 1900s, but even if you’ve never thrown that word around before, you likely know its power. Books help us navigate anxiety, depression, loneliness, and not simply by giving us a means of escape, but by widening our view. I feel all alone in my choices, but what if I’m not? Books help us to be bold, be curious, be ourselves.
As someone who was as recently as last month looking for a therapist, it was reassuring to be reminded of the power of books to comfort, heal, and promote change. Sometimes I think us readers take this gift for granted, or at least I do.
What’s your bibliotherapy? Is there a book that helped you through a pivotal moment in your life, and how did you find it? Chance or recommendation? Are there words you return to again and again for guidance, or a particular place you like to go when you read?
Share your thoughts here—I’d love to know!
Expand your literary horizons with New Books!, a weekly newsletter spotlighting 3-5 exciting new releases, hand-picked by our very own Liberty Hardy. Sign up now!