Meet the woman prescribing books as a cure

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(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Sean Fleming, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • A new wave of bibliotherapists is prescribing certain books as cures.
  • Bibliotherapist Ella Berthoud has seen her book recommendations change lives – and help with everything from bereavement to bullying.

Have you ever read a book that changed your life? Perhaps it was the first time you walked alongside shepherd boy Santiago in Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist and got wanderlust? Or when Sheryl Sandberg invited you to Lean In?

Books have the power to transport us across continents and into different people’s skin, and transform the way we see the world.

But they also have the power to heal, according to a new breed of bibliotherapists, who are prescribing books to ‘patients’ based on what’s going on in their lives.

What is bibliotherapy?

Bibliotherapy is not exactly a new phenomenon: the 18th-century writer Dr Samuel Johnson, who suffered from depression, once said “the only end of writing is to enable readers better to enjoy life or better to endure it”.

And the entrance to the sacred library of Pharaoh Rameses II apparently bore the words “Healing-place of the soul”.

It’s been around since the time of Plato, according to Ella Berthoud, a British bibliotherapist at The School of Life in London, and co-author of The Novel Cure (for grown-ups) and The Story Cure (for children) with Susan Elderkin.

“Susan and I thought we had invented it in 2008! But we were always passionate about giving people the right book at the right time for their circumstances, and had been practising on each other since we were at Cambridge University together.”

She says people seek bibliotherapy for a variety of reasons, from feeling like they are stuck in a book rut, to having a real-life issue they want to address. They’re often at a crossroads and don’t know where to turn.

“People come to us in all kinds of life situations: when they are bereaved; about to go travelling or retire; having their first child; are considering having an affair and don’t know what to do. We always tailor our prescription for their unique needs,” Berthoud says.

Typically before a session of bibliotherapy, Berthoud will send the reader a questionnaire asking about reading habits (why they read, where, when and what), their life situation and anything major coming up.

It’s followed up with a 40-minute chat, in person or via Skype, resulting in a ‘prescription’ of eight books for the client to read over the next few months.

“Each title comes with a description of why it will work well for the client to read at this time,” explains Berthoud.

“Some people have come to us having completely changed their lives after reading a book we’ve prescribed.

“Books can have the power to make people want to seize the day, travel, have children, embrace being single, look at ageing differently or have an idea of living with a disability – so many different things can be learned and experienced through books.”

How libraries can help

books reading library mental health self care therapy Bibliotherapist Bibliotherapy writing reading read author
Characteristics of the three types of bibliotherapy
Image: R. J Rubin (1978)

The therapeutic use of books has its roots firmly in libraries, according to Rhea Rubin, American library consultant and author of the 1970s book Using Bibliotherapy: A Guide to Theory and Practice.

She says a librarian was one of the first known cases of someone using books to treat mental patients in 1904 at a hospital in Waverly, Massachusetts.

And in 1939, bibliotherapy received official library recognition when the Hospital Division of the American Library Association (ALA) appointed its first bibliotherapy committee.

Rubin wrote: “Bibliotherapy can be used by community agencies, especially the public library, to give peopIe a chance to discuss their reactions to issues in a personalized manner.

“Through identifying with a character in a book or reacting to a situation in a film, people can discuss themselves in a non-threatening atmosphere due to the objectivity which literature provides… For libraries dedicated to responding to their community’s needs, bibliotherapy may be the key.”

Reading as therapy has since gone beyond libraries to schools and communities around the globe.

One Mumbai-based book club has called itself Bibliotherapy after the practice – and blends the traditional reading group ethos with a supportive environment to discuss mental health.

What is the World Economic Forum’s Book Club?

The World Economic Forum launched its official Book Club on Facebook in April 2018. Readers worldwide are invited to join and discuss a variety of books, both fiction and non-fiction. It is a private Facebook group dedicated to discussing one book every month.

Each month, we announce a new book on our social media channels. We then publish an extract and begin a chapter-by-chapter discussion with group members. Selected comments and questions are sent to the author, who in return sends us a video response.

Unlike other book clubs, the group features the direct involvement of the authors, giving you – our global audience with members all around the globe – a chance to directly connect with some of the most influential thinkers and experts in the world.

We have featured authors such as Steven Pinker, Elif Shafak, Yuval Noah Harari, and Melinda Gates.

You can join the Book Club here.

Follow us on Twitter here.

Follow us on Instagram here.

The power to heal

So what’s happening internally when you curl up with a book?

The very act of reading forces you to step aside from the chores for a while and spend time with yourself, explains Berthoud, whose book, The Art of Mindful Reading: Embracing the Wisdom of Words, was published last year.

“Being transported is very good for an overactive mind, and because reading a novel requires you to maintain focus for an extended period, it has a calming effect akin to meditation.

“And if you are reading a book that happens to speak to your situation, then even better.”

The process of identifying with a character can lead to catharsis and healing, she adds.

“When you read a great book, you live the action of the book, and become the characters you are reading about, which deepens your perspective and understanding of life.”

For parents of children, books can be an incredibly useful way of starting a conversation about a tough subject.

“When we were writing The Story Cure, we spent a long time looking for the best books to help with bullying,” says Berthoud.

“It’s such an insidious and horrible thing to happen to a child, and it tends to be very difficult for a child to speak about as there’s shame involved, and perhaps fear of reprisals.

“Books can be hugely useful in those situations – they’re safe, they allow the subject to be aired, and they can show positive models of how you might help yourself.”

Reading books – and people

Crossing paths with the right book at the right time is normally a matter of chance, according to Berthoud.

“Some books, such as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (by Robert M Pirsig), or The Alchemist, have to be read at a certain age, or it’s too late.”

Or books can mean different things to different people, such as The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim – about a group of women who escape from their stale relationships, rent a villa together for a month in Italy and end up finding a way to rejuvenate their marriages.

“A nice escapist read for one, and a marriage-saver for another,” she says.

Books are a very immediate way to connect with and understand someone, believes Berthoud.

“If they say, ‘I love Stieg Larsson’ or JD Salinger, or Michael Ondaatje, I feel I already know quite a lot about how they tick.”

And her clients visibly relax when they start talking about books.

“Many of my recent clients have come to me feeling overwhelmed and stressed and anxious by just staying on top of things in their lives. They spend their lives worrying about things, and never seem to get any quality time with their kids.

“Talking about books is like watching them come into flower – their faces change, they remember these enchanted hours they used to spend reading when they were younger, and realise it’s within their grasp again.”

She says even the most time-poor can build books into their daily lives in new ways.

“Listening to audiobooks with your kids in the car on long journeys, or on the daily drive to school, can be wonderfully bonding and great fun. I love helping people make these changes happen.”

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