“Inhabiting a novel can be transformative in a way that using a self-help book isn’t….[A truly great novel] gets into your subconscious and actually can change your very psyche from within.”
Ella Berthoud, bibliotherapist at the School of Life in London
Well, it’s about time! After exploring the intellectual benefits of reading, researchers are now taking a close look at whether reading fiction can improve our mental health. According to a recent article called, “Read a novel: it’s just what the doctor ordered,” by Sarah Begley in Time Magazine (November 7, 2016), identifying the relationship between feelings of empathy and literary fiction is a tricky business.
Still, studies have found that fans of any fictional world (not just one in books, but in TV series as well) can experience real grief when a favorite character dies. According to Begley, “The friendship is imaginary, but the emotional attachment is real — and it can have real-life implications.”
All this research into the impact of fiction on our emotional well-being has spawned a new field of endeavor called “bibliotherapy” — the prescription of novels to “help cure life’s ailments,” as practitioner Ella Berthoud describes it. Bibliotherapists may have no actual training in therapy, but they do have clients who turn to them for help. “There are certain books that have been really life-changing books for me,” notes Elderkin, “and it’s generally a matter of luck whether you hit on the right book at the right time in your life, which can open a door and help you see something in a new way, or just give you that next leap into new maturity.” Amen to that!
Some clients are coping with career changes and others with divorces, midlife crises, or relationship problems. Whatever the issue, bibliotherapists have books on tap they believe can help. Most people opt for one-time sessions and may end up purchasing a gift session for friends or relatives. Clients fill out a questionnaire about their reading preferences and key issues in their lives and then meet with the bibliotherapist, who may recommend six to eight books. Here are a few “prescriptions” from Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin:
Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins — for helping readers embrace life.
The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt — for readers weighing career change.
Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry — for readers helping aging parents.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston — for surviving divorce.
It’s great to know that readers read to live and grow, isn’t it? Write on!