Former Associate editor Margret Aldrich on the hunt for happiness, community, and how humans thrive
We’ve all taken sanctuary in a good book at the end of a hard day, a hard week, a hard month, but do the words on those pages contain actual healing properties? Bibliotherapists at the London-based establishment The School of Life think so, calling the personalized book-list prescriptions they offer “the perfect way for you to discover those amazing but often elusive works of literature that can illuminate and even change your life.”
Writer Alexandra Redgrave, of enRoute, decides to try out the shop’s bibliotherapy service, reassured that there is a long history backing the power of books. She explains:
Although bibliotherapy might sound like just another clever name for the self-help book section, the practice has existed since at least the end of the 18th century in Europe and the beginning of the 19th century in the U.S., where mental-health hospitals started setting up libraries in the 1840s as a means to treat patients. The American physician Benjamin Rush noted in 1812 that certain novels could cure melancholy—this at a time when it was commonly believed that sensationalist texts caused insanity. And British soldiers were prescribed fiction after WWII to help them recuperate from post-traumatic shock.
At her private session, Redgrave—considering a career shift and seeking courage—answers questions about her reading history, her childhood, and what is missing from her life, as the bibliotherapist thoughtfully takes notes. “Have you ever read The Year of the Hare?” the therapist asks, ruminating on the right book for Redgrave’s needs. “It’s about a Finnish journalist who takes a drive in the countryside, accidentally hits a hare and disappears into the woods to help it recover, leaving his former life behind for the call of the wild.” Redgrave is prescribed that novel on the spot, along with the promise of a longer reading list in a few days.
In addition to individual, group, and remote bibliotherapy sessions, The School of Life offers an extensive menu of options for optimizing personal fulfillment: classes (How to Balance Work with Life, How to Be Cool); secular sermons (on compassion, strangers, storytelling); lectures (Fear of Failure, Finding the Perfect Partner); and psychotherapy consultations. But bibliotherapy remains one of its most popular services.
Check out the sample prescriptions available online for the recently bereaved, the sleep deprived parent, the newly retired, the gainfully unemployed, and the broken-hearted—who are advised to read How to Be Free by Tom Hodgkinson. Lonely hearts will soon “bid adieu to sadness,” The School of Life claims, and “embrace a new way of living.” Until then, at least they’ll have a good book to curl up with.