Bibliotherapy: The Healing Power of Books

Hark! ‘Twould seem that mayhap, the mentally ill, the drug addict, yeah, even the much-feared convicted felon possess an affinity similar to the proud members of certain literary circles. What sayest thou, Shakespeare snobs?
Yes, snooty scholars and cultural elitists may shudder at the idea of the more undesirable elements of society starting their own book clubs. Imagine, there you are nibbling on a six-dollar cube of cheese and sipping on a double-digit glass of wine in your friend’s air-conditioned living room, discussing what Wordsworth’s prelude is really saying about the human soul. Now imagine that at the same time, somewhere else in the world, a group of homicidal crack addicts, whose best friends come and go at the whim of their imagination, are having the same conversation.
Is it hard to believe? According to ‘The Reading Cure,’ an article published in The Guardian on Jan. 5, it’s true.
According to the article, a link between the arts and the power of healing has been acknowledged for thousands of years. The mythological god, Apollo, is in charge of healing and poetry. Greek theatres were situated conveniently close to hospitals so patients could watch dramas as part of their cure. Also, in the well-known biblical story of David and Goliath, David exorcises an evil spirit from King Saul by playing the harp.
Of course, the Holocaust was a bit of a snag to the theory of literature’s ability to help us become better people, ‘when immensely civilized and well-read men brought up on Schiller and Goethe proved capable of the most barbarous acts,’ pointed out Blake Morrison, author of ‘The Reading Cure.’
However, in recent years, bibliotherapy appears to be on the rise. Morrison’s article found that, in a recent survey, ‘over half of English library authorities are operating some form of bibliotherapy intervention, based on the books-on-prescriptionmodel.’ In addition, an Alabama study claims that bibliotherapy is more effective than medication at treating depression. Even Raymond Tallis, a Manchester University geriatrics professor who is critical of the caliber of studies that find healing power in literature, admits the therapeutic potential of reading.
So far, one key to the apparent success of this idea is an emphasis on actual ‘literature’ being read. Self-help books do not qualify. This has been a problem with some bibliotherapy programs in the United Kingdom. When someone says that he or she suffers from depression, it might seem reasonable to hand the person a book on how to feel better.
However, history suggests a different strategy. As Morrison points out, ‘What cured [philosopher John Stuart] Mill was an account of death; what eased [novelist George] Eliot’s mourning of her husband was a journey through Dante’s inferno. If books are to be therapeutic, it seems, it’s because they take us to dark places rather than bright ones.