By Kate Ivanova
In 1916, Samuel McChord Crothers wrote an essay called “A Literary Clinic”. In his text, while quoting his friend Bagster, he introduced the term and the practice of “bibliotherapy”. Bagster, a psychoanalysis enthusiast suggested that books can be used as medicine when combined with therapy. He called this combination a new science or rather a new category of psychoanalysis which allows a multidisciplinary use of literature that stretches it beyond the mere notion of escapism and entertainment. The idea of using books for healing can be traced back to ancient Greece where libraries were called “healing places for the soul”. Nowadays, put into practice by librarians, teachers, psychologists, or by a multi-professional team, bibliotherapy is based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Its aim is to cure (or teach subjects how to cope with) mental illnesses such as anxiety disorders, depression, OCD, and addictions like alcoholism.
Working with psychologists and other health professionals, the bibliotherapist usually receives clients with a ready-made diagnosis. During the consultation, the patient completes a number of assessments and questionnaires that will give an idea to the bibliotherapist about the material to prescribe to the subject. The subject could be seeing a professional therapist regularly and while discussing the text they are working with, they are free to express and discuss anything they want with their therapist. This form of practice is called clinical bibliotherapy.
Schools, libraries, and other self-development centres like “The School Of Life” in London, use the method of developmental bibliotherapy. The latter focuses on guided reading rather than prescribed literature and it is not necessarily aimed at people suffering from mental disorders. In schools for instance, developmental bibliotherapy can be used in order to teach children how to overcome challenges and issues they might be dealing with at their age, provide solutions to problems that arise during puberty, and most importantly make them understand that they are not the only ones going through a tough experience. Helpful with self-analysis, self-expression and the resolution of past traumas, bibliotherapy also allows the rewriting of stories. The text that the subject has been prescribed to can be altered or retold by the patient depending on his/her condition and needs.
In both forms of bibliotherapy, a variety of texts can be used, ranging from fiction, biography, to self-help books. The bibliotherapist must be flexible and creative during their session while discussing the material with his subject. A general session with the bibliotherapist consists of a mixture of psychoanalysis, book club-like discussion of the material and a creative writing session.
While some health providers are sceptical about bibliotherapy’s long-term effects, therapists and librarians have introduced trial practices in Canada (The Apothecary Library), Scotland (The East Ayrshire Bibliotherapy Scheme ,“Read Yourself Well”) Ireland and England (“The School of Life”).
This form of therapy not only gives more value to books but it also serves as a substitute to pharmaceutical drugs. Nowadays, when thousands of people develop addictions to prescription drugs or are even killed by them, the importance of new alternatives is ever more necessary. The prescription of a book instead of a numbing anti-depressant makes the person work with his/her problem rather than against it. Instead of engaging in a constant fight where success and failure are the only options, the patient using bibliotherapy is giving themselves a chance to identify, analyse and resolve traumas and issues that are similar to their own.
As a reader, a writer, and a literature student, I often find myself questioning the purpose of what I’m doing. The idea of using literature for mere entertainment and the killing of time in an airplane never satisfied me entirely. I always found that there was more to the words on paper that most of us numbly engulf.
Mainly because as a child, I uncovered my hidden realms of imagination with the help of Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and later, the same book helped me cope with a cultural shock that I was experiencing as a young immigrant. I noticed that something therapeutic was happening inside of me when I started rewriting different narratives from cartoons and children’s books. However, I was still too young to understand the connection between psychology and reading. Just before I enrolled into my university to study literature, Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray cured my writer’s block and drew me onto the next level of creativity. My curiosity about the strange and yet inspiring effects of books grew with time until finally, in one of my writing projects at university, I was given the opportunity to write a work on Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, which for me at that time was the ultimate cure for my early twenties’ existential crisis.
What I learned while writing about a text that had helped me psychologically, was that in many Eastern cultures especially in the Vedic tradition, performance and literature aim at elevating human consciousness and help human development. These aims are not fully applied in the Western culture and in my opinion bibliotherapy is an important step towards giving more value to literature and assist human development.
Cook, K. E. et al. “Bibliotherapy”. Intervention In School And Clinic, vol 42, no. 2, 2006, pp. 91-100. SAGE Publications, doi:10.1177/10534512060420020801.
Macdonald, J. et al. “An Evaluation Of A Collaborative Bibliotherapy Scheme Delivered Via A Library Service”. Journal Of Psychiatric And Mental Health Nursing, vol 20, no. 10, 2012, pp. 857-865. Wiley-Blackwell, doi:10.1111/j.1365-2850.2012.01962.x.