Above the door to the chamber in which King Ramses II of Egypt kept his books was written what is, apparently, considered to be the world's oldest library motto:
House of Healing for the Soul
Now here comes the New Yorker this week to remind us that bibliotherapy is a thing.
The article hangs itself on the hook of Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, a pair of bibliotherapists associated with the School of Life, a school headquartered in London that is...well, not traditional in its focus but does not appear to be run by a bunch of wastrelly hippies, either. The article's author, Ceridwen Dovey, describes being given a session with Berthoud as a gift and the ensuing email conversations that led to Berthoud recommending a list that ran from The Guide by R. K. Narayan to Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow.
The notion that reading can be therapeutic is not a new one, and its practice goes back to pretty much as long as we've been able to write down words. The 1800s saw it adopted as a more common treatment approach, and the term "bibliotherapy" was coined in an article for the Atlantic in 1916. Within the next decade, there were training programs for it at Western Reserve University and the University of Minnesota School of Medicine. Reading was a prescribed treatment for veterans of the Great European War.
The fact that reading can make you feel better, can help you sort through issues, can provide a perspective that enlarges and strengthen your mind and spirit-- this is not exactly news to those of us who, as Dovey puts it, self-medicate with reading. Most of us can point to a person in our lives who directed us to the right book at the right time to get us over a particular bump in the road, or who found a work that just opened up our brain in new and exciting ways. I can point to certain corners in my life and identify them by a work that helped me navigate the fork in the road, and I have a shelf of books that I reread as a means of sort or recalibrating myself. It's all very personal and touchy-feely, I suppose, but its real.
But look through the reference section of the Wikipedia entry, and you see entire scholarly books about it (Rubin, R.J. (1978). Using bibliotherapy: A guide to theory and practice. Phoenix, Oryx Press.) along with scholarly articles, including at least one published in the Journal of Poetry Therapy.
Is there science behind any of this? There is some evidence that bibliotherapy helps in treating self-harm, OCD, drug abuse, and (unsurprisingly) insomnia. The article gets very excited about mirror neurons, brain cells that have probably been seriously overhyped, but which suggest a mechanism by which humans can "learn" from experiences they only observe. And we have several recent studies to suggest that show a connection between reading fiction and a strengthened sense of empathy.
It's further proof that we've arrived someplace strange and a little sad that it takes all this noise to argue that reading is good for you, that a good book can broaden the mind, deepen the heart, and lift the spirit. But it's still nice to read something in the popular press that doesn't see reading as an act performed by students in small bites on standardized tests.