Tuesday 26 January 2016

Reading for Happiness

January is a dismal month. With the recent storms, it’s becoming almost impossible to step outside the door without either being drenched, swept away or frozen to death. It’s a much more sensible idea to batten down the hatches, stay home, stay well, and read a book.

Painting by Marie Fox
As far back as Plato, storytelling has been a powerful way in which to mould the human mind. Think moral tales - told for the purpose of conditioning little brains, to warn us of the perils in life, the piggy house made from straw or the wolf hiding in grandma's bed.

If a story can influence a mind, create a set of moral rules for life, a list of rights and wrong, do's and don'ts. Can a story also take a mind that is broken or damaged and re-wire the brain, rewrite life and fix or heal something that was broken or at least provide understanding and relief?

This then is the one of the premises behind bibliotherapy, the therapeutic use of literature to help an individual understand and cope with an illness, or another problem.

This is not a new idea, bibliotherapy was first used in 1916 by Rev. Samuel McChord Crothers in Atlantic Monthly where he talked about a bibliotherapeutic process, literature, both fiction and non-fiction was prescribed as medicine for a variety of ailments.

During World War One, Sadie Peterson-Delaney, a librarian, established one of the earliest recorded formal programmes of bibliotherapy when she prescribed literature to WW1 veterans to boost their self-esteem and "relieve the mind from malady and worry" [1]

In 1946 it was applied for the first time with children. Sister Mary Agnes, published a study on bibliotherapy for 'socially maladjusted children', stressing its use to help children overcome their problems. [2]

There are also Creative bibliotherapy schemes, the library based model, whereby readers self-refer or are referred by health workers to library based bibliotherapists, usually on a 1:1 basis. And the Reading Group model usually linked to the library though not exclusively, like The Reader Organisation who use novels, short stories as well as poetry as their tools for expression.

And there is Poetry Therapy. The focus being on poetry for healing as self-expression and growth of the individual rather than on poetry as art.

Read at the right moment in your life and a novel can—quite literally—change it, save it, and most definitely improve it. Recent neurological studies show that readers of fiction quite literally become the characters they are reading about. (I have always known this.) And this enables a more empathic connection with others.

Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin use books to heal. In 2008 they set up the bibliotherapy service at The School of Life in London, and since then have been prescribing books either virtually or in person to patients all over the world. Their prescribing resulted in The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You. It is a reminder of the power books can have on the human mind. ‘Whether you have a stubbed toe or a stubborn case of the blues, within these pages you’ll find a cure in the form of a novel or a combination of novels to help ease your pain.’ 

The Yellow Wallpaper, first published in 1892 in the New England Magazine, explores what happens when a young woman is not allowed to read or write. The story is a first-person account of a young mother’s mental deterioration and is based on Gilman’s own experiences of postnatal depression. The unnamed protagonist of the story is advised to abstain from any and all physical activity and not to use her imagination. The woman’s husband takes her to a country house where she is kept in a former nursery decorated with yellow wallpaper.

After reading The Yellow Wallpaper, you might just need a lift. The Reading Agency’s Mind Boosting Books scheme is a national promotion of uplifting titles, including novels, poetry and non-fiction. The books are recommended by readers and reading groups around the country. Classics such as The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim; A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr; Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro; and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce are just four of twenty titles listed.

'There they hang in the wardrobe of our minds, the shapes of books we have read like clothes we have taken off and hung up to wait their season.' [Virginia Woolf]

We wore that jacket, that book cover for a while, it went everywhere with us, on bus and train journeys, to the doctor's surgery, and back home. One day we came to the last page and in many instances there was joy, sometimes sadness and yearning for more. The story had reached its final destination, it was time to say farewell, to close the chapter and with a deep sigh, caress the book and place it back on its shelf or return to the library or friend.

[1] Jack and Ronan, 2008
[2] Agnes, 1946


Alison Summers said...

What an interesting history of bibliotherapy.

Caroline (Bookword) said...

Hi Rosie,
thinking along the same lines, and also referring to the Novel Cure, I posted on my blog, Bookword, in January: Reading is Good for You.
Love your illustrations, verbal and pictorial!

Rosie Canning said...

Thank you Alison. I enjoyed putting it together. Don't know if my PhD supervisor will be as impressed when I'm supposed th be writing fiction!

Rosie Canning said...

Thanks Caroline. I've been interested in this for some years. I wrote about Bibliotherapy back in 2011 for our local magazine Greenacre Times. I'll have a look at yours too. Just have to persuade my bosses now...see latest blog.