Bibliotherapy and Liberals

by Judy Ferro

I’m not a newcomer to the world of books. I grew up surrounded by books. In high school I discovered that my family qualified as middle class only in the number of books we read. My sister and I both became middle school reading teachers and, after our legs gave out, librarians.

So I was surprised this week when an article in The New Yorker addressed a book-related topic that I had never heard of: bibliotherapy. That’s right, reading for healing.

According to author Ceridwen Dovey, the practice may be very old. “A healing place for the soul” was inscribed in stone above the entrance to the ancient library in Thebes. Bibliotherapy didn’t come into its own, however, until books were more generally available. In the late nineteenth century Sigmund Freud, pioneer of psychotherapy, used literature during sessions. As soldiers traumatized by World War I carnage returned home, librarians in the U.S. received instruction on selecting books for them.

I suspect the vast number of self-help books and workbooks available today is responsible for less interest in literature as therapy. Yet, I personally find that lessons from one’s own interpretation from a novel are more lasting, even haunting.

Interested in therapy by literature? The School of Life in London offers both in-person and correspondence treatments. Dovey reports that the initial questionnaire asked in-depth questions about her reading habits and her concerns. After confessing a fear that she didn’t have the spiritual background to handle the loss of a loved one, she received more detailed questions. Her personal prescription recommended both fiction and non-fiction works. Dovey mentions several philosophical novels: The Guide by R.K Narayan, The Gospel according to Jesus Christ by Jose’ Saramago, Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow, and Siddhartha by Herman Hesse.

A quick Internet search revealed that The School of Life charges $160 for such a service. At least one doesn’t have to come back week after week; the prescribed list may keep a client reading for months or even years.

For those of us unwilling to invest that much money and time, the school has published a book, The Novel Cure, listing a few books for problems from A to Z. (Some e-book readers complain of the difficulty in navigating.) Included are items such as “caring for someone with cancer,” “idiot, feeling like,” and “cowardice.” According to Dovey, “the authors have trawled two thousand years of literature for novels that effectively promote happiness, health, and sanity, written by brilliant minds who knew what it meant to be human and wrote their life lessons into their fiction

Does such literature affect one’s politics? Many believe so. Studies published in 2006 and 2009 said reading is apt to make one more empathetic and, thus, more liberal. A 2013 study published in Science found that reading of literary novels—think Faulkner and Twain—increased empathy but reading genres—think mysteries and romances—did not.

Brain research published in 2011 suggests a reason: “fMRI brain scans of participants showed that, when people read about an experience, they display stimulation within the same neurological regions as when they go through that experience themselves.” I know Bible stories expanded my point of view early. One researcher, however, questions whether empathy for characters in a novel leads to, or distracts from, empathy for actual persons.

Studies do show that liberals tend to read more than conservatives. One can only wonder what is cause and what is effect. Can novels be a source of liberal support for broader education emphasizing activity and involvement rather than mere transmittal of data?