With more than 180,000 books published annually in the UK alone, how are we to differentiate between the friends and foes of the fiction world? Which is where bibliotherapy, the concept of prescribing literature, comes in. It came to prominence in World War II when doctors doled out Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility to shell-shocked soldiers because it was thought the solid English values and romantic plot lines would cure depression and mental troubles.
But never has the practice been more popular than it is now, thanks to the pioneering sessions of Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, who’ve been offering one-to-one and virtual bibliotherapy at The School of Life in London since 2008. In the last year, they have taken their service on the road, dispensing reading remedies everywhere from the Port Eliot Festival in Cornwall to the Jaipur Literture Festival in India. Their book, The Novel Cure (Canongate), came out in paperback in September, and they’re currently writing a children’s version called A Spoonful Of Stories (out in 2016).
“When choosing what to read, you are usually at the mercy of Amazon, bestseller lists and recommendations by friends – all perfectly valid but not tailor-made to help you,” explains Ella. “Through a questionnaire and a one- hour chat, we explore your reading habits and your bigger life issues, whether it’s career crises, relationship trouble or the menopause (all popular
reasons for bibliotherapy), and recommend six books that touch on similar themes or are ultimately uplifting.”
Though not trained therapists, Ella and Susan, who met at Cambridge University, have an impressive back catalogue of literature at their fingertips. “I read at least three books a week to expand my knowledge and, when writing The Novel Cure, we got through hundreds,” says Ella. They know that stories get you through the toughest of times. “Reading the right book at the right time can change your life,” says Ella. “There are certain titles I go back to whenever I’m feeling depressed or wondering what life is all about. Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins is an upbeat and quirky favourite, a magical realist work about the god Pan and the quest for immortality. I also love The Moomins stories by Tove Jansson – they’re for children, but they cover adult themes like melancholia and OCD.”
Turn to page 80 of November’s The Simple Things (out 28 October 2015) to read Ruth Tierney’s feature on bibliotherapy.
WIN A SESSION ON THE COUCH
We have a free bibliotherapy session from The School of Life, worth £80, to give away to one lucky reader. It can be taken either remotely or in person at the school in London.