By Eimear O'Riordan | 13th July 2021
Ahead of her workshop series this month, we sat down with Bibliotherapy expert Ella Berthoud to find out a little bit more about Bibliotherapy, exactly what it is, and how it can have such profound effects on people’s lives.
Bibliotherapy is the art of prescribing fiction to cure life’s ailments. So when I meet a client, I find out about their reading habits, their reading loves, their reading dislikes and I then ponder which books are best to give them at this time in their lives to help them with whatever issues they’re going through. It can just be about the joys of reading and all about what they should read but it can also deal with particular issues that are going on in their lives. For example, if they’re going through a divorce, if they’re about to have children, if they’re about to retire, if they’re bereaved - I give them books to help them with any of those issues. On the other hand, I can just give them brilliant books to read because maybe they are stuck in a reading rut. I also talk to the client about what they like to read, where they like to read, when they like to read, how they like to read and part of my role as a Bibliotherapist is to help the client to ponder about how they can get more out of reading in various different ways.
I first discovered Bibliotherapy when I was studying at Cambridge University with my friend Susan Elderkin who was in the room next door to me and we started talking to each other about healing through reading. We were both studying english literature and we realised that we were fundamentally changed by whatever we read and we could be put into a completely different mood or frame of mind by reading that book, at that time. At the time we thought we would be more of an agony aunt, so we discussed writing for a newspaper and getting people to write to us and for us to give them book prescriptions but we gradually realised that it would be really great to do one to one Bibliotherapy talking to the client directly. So we evolved Bibliotherapy into what it is today via The School of Life. We started the service at The School of Life as a one to one service where we send a questionnaire to the client, they give us all their answers, we then meet the client and have a chat with them (that can last up to an hour) and after that, we send them a prescription of reading.
Bibliotherapy has actually been around since the time of Aristotle! When me and my Friend Susan Elderkin first thought about Bibliotherapy we thought we’d invented it but we were wrong. We researched Bibliotherapy and discovered that it's been going for at least 2,000 years. So, the ancient Greeks were using Bibliotherapy in their own way by putting hospitals next to theatres so that sick people could be cured as much by art as they were cursed by traditional medicine. People also used it during the second world war and during the 1960’s it was used a lot for kids because doctors realised that Bibliotherapy could really help soldiers coming back from the trenches and kids going through difficult divorces of their parents and so on. The benefits now are multitudinous. Bibliotherapy helps people with anxiety, it helps people who have all kinds of issues that come with the experience of “living” by showing them different ways to look at the situations that they’re in. When you read the right book at the right time it can have a cathartic effect on you and help you to completely change the way that you look at the world. By inhabiting a book you inhabit the characters within the pages and you can be fundamentally changed by living the life within a novel.
Bibliotherapy is really important, especially in today's climate. More people are suffering from anxiety, stress, overwork and burnout. They need to sit down and read and get away from all. They can reap the benefits of Bibliotherapy in so many ways. Also, during this time of pandemic, Bibliotherapy is all the more important because people have been having to spend more time on their own, separated from their loved ones. Through Bibliotherapy, they can actually reconnect with their loved ones by sharing books together. One of the things I talk about as a Bibliotherapist are some of the great ways of sharing books, reading aloud, reading over skype or zoom and reading books concurrently that you can discuss with loved ones who you’re separated from. There are so many ways Bibliotherapy can be incredibly helpful now.
We genuinely prescribe fiction more than non-fiction because we believe that by entering into a fictional universe, you inhabit the characters in a way that’s different to reading non-fiction. Non-fiction speaks to your conscious brain, whereas fiction speaks to your unconscious brain and you are fundamentally alerted by the experience of living in a character's life. You experience the catharsis of their emotions when you read fiction. When you read non-fiction, it can be brilliant, it can be life-changing, it can be incredibly informative but it doesn't necessarily affect you at the same level as a sea change in the same way fiction does.
I would say it’s a book called ‘Jitterbug Perfume’ by Tom Robbins', which is one of my favourite books of all time. My copy has lots of notes in it from places that I've marked. It’s a book about a man searching for immortality. It starts off in the 8th century A.D and carries on into the 1970’s. So he does find a way of living seemingly forever, I won’t tell you what happens, but it's a brilliant book which is full of ‘joie de vivre’. It’s a book that makes you think that anything is possible and it makes you feel a tremendous energy and joy for life. It’s a book that I read when I was in my early twenties and I just loved it’s message and the way it makes you feel energised and as if infinite possibilities are at your fingertips. It also made me believe even more in the transformative power of books.
Find yourself intrigued and want to find out more? Book your spot at one of Ella’s upcoming workshops here.