I used to know a woman with a sixty a week book habit. Every Thursday she’d come to the library where I worked to borrow armfuls of Mills and Boon. She wore the same doormat-brown tracksuit each time and was usually accompanied by four or five children of the spotty-legged, runny-nosed variety. I never saw her husband. He existed only as a library card – extending her borrowing capacity by another fifteen books.
I imagined the woman at home; book in hand as she cleaned, reading while she cooked, reading while she ironed. Like a chain smoker, starting each book from the stub of the one before. At the time I wished I could introduce at least one different book into the mix. It took me a while to realise those books were probably keeping her sane – her own private prose-ac. Meditative, repetitive – medicinal reading.
In an interview on Radio National’s All in the Mind, talking about his book iDisorder: the psychology of technology, Dr Larry Rosen suggests that while technology doesn’t necessarily cause mental disorders, it could exacerbate existing problems. So the person with obsessive compulsive tendencies is constantly checking their phone, and (who would have guessed?) the constant Facebook updater sharing their photos of me, me, me, is most likely to be a narcissist …
But presumably what can harm, can heal as well. Readers, writers and other artists have been using books to self medicate for years. It’s possible that as technology provides more options and outlets to both consume and create, it also provides more ways to connect – or even disconnect from the world.
Reading suits my personality type and my need to withdraw and recharge. I’m unlikely to turn for healing to Twitter or Facebook (which makes me feel nauseous at the best of times), but I can see why others of a more gregarious nature might choose them.
I bet that Mills and Boon reading woman today has an ipad or a Kindle. She’s probably a reader of the Fifty Shades franchise, maybe a writer of fan fiction, certainly actively reading and commenting on blogs. She’ll read books on her phone in between updating her Facebook status and picking up the kids from school. Mills and Boon itself has diversified into a range of genres and grades of titillation and was an early ebook publisher. Different medicine – different outcomes.
The idea that either consuming or creating books and art has therapeutic properties has been understood for centuries. In Why be Happy when you could be Normal? Jeanette Winterson says ‘Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines. What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination.’ Jojo Moyes spruiks the healing power of Jane Austen and I have a good friend who says that beginning to enjoy reading Clive James marked the turning point in a serious illness.
Bibliotherapy is a recognised treatment for depression. In a therapeutic setting it’s often used with children to model behaviours or situations. But bibliotherapy has extended beyond these more narrow confines to embrace cures for physical as well as mental ailments and all kinds of literature. Blake Morrison in The Reading Cure describes how in Britain book groups are set up specifically to help the homeless and the mentally ill. They don’t study books that ‘model solutions’, but take on the hard yakka of Shakespeare or Dickens.
Reading aloud is used to help those with brain injuries and at the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project ‘call and response’ repetitions of the rhythmic poems patients learnt at school are used as therapy. I guess those of us who grew up without a bank of childhood poetry will be parroting the words to those popular songs, the earworms of our youth, when the time comes. We should be so lucky, lucky, lucky… Better still, start learning your poetry now.
You can study bibliotherapy as part of psychotherapy or even Library Science today, but it’s been the informal practice of many a good librarian or bookshop owner for years. You can tell a lot about someone’s state of mind from the books they choose. If you’re unwilling to trust your local librarian, you can even get a bibliotherapy consultation from somewhere like the School of Life where they’ll match a book prescription to your personality type.
In Reading as Therapy: What Contemporary Fiction does for Middle-class Americans, Timothy Aubry argues that fiction provides readers with a therapeutic vocabulary that enables connections and sympathies with other people. The more formal sharing and talking about stories in book groups and on radio and television programs replicates the sharing of story that used to happen around the daily or weekly reading of religious texts, or the telling of fables and fairy tales. But as with all medications, it’s important to choose the right drug and dose.
When I’m sick I rarely turn to something new. I want something as soothing and undemanding as a mother’s hand on my forehead. I used to read Lord of the Rings at the start of every Christmas school holiday. It was a cleansing ritual, purging school from my system before the true holiday could begin.
When I take to my bed – whatever the illness – it’s a diet of the familiar that gets me through. I turn to my favourite Bronte – Anne, (not as self-indulgent as Emily and less self-satisfied than Charlotte). The grounds of Pemberley have become too polluted with replicants and Zombies to provide the relief they once did, but Persuasion is always good when I need Austen. I like the predictability of Agatha Christie, the humour of Terry Pratchett, or the comfort of Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom Trilogy. (A coincidence, perhaps, that both the latter feature librarians.)
The popularity of series books for teenagers– the Harry Potters, the Twilights, is in part about that same familiarity. A cure for the pain of adolescence? ** Familiar books can create a meditative almost trancelike experience. I’ve always thought in the unlikely circumstance of being forced to undergo surgery without anaesthetic, that I would take a well worn book. In the mean time, I make sure I always have a lots of doses on hand in the medicine cabinet I call my bookshelf.