DH Lawrence once wrote that “one sheds one’s sicknesses in books” and that, in the act of reading, the reader “presents again one’s emotions, to be master of them”.
January was a boom month for self-help books. Thousands of covers compete for our attention with titles that promise to make us leaner, fitter, richer, happier, more creative, more productive and more successful. They offer to lecture or hector us to a better version of ourselves as we struggle to change old habits and cope with the vagaries and stresses of life. Can reading literature improve our lives?
Prof Philip Davies of Liverpool University has examined the effects on brain activity of reading extracts from Othello, King Lear, Macbeth and Corialanus, as well as poetry by Philip Larkin, William Wordsworth and TS Eliot.
After reading the classical work, his participants then read it in a simplified form, without the metaphors or verbosity of the original. He recorded much more electrical activity in the right side of the brain when the complex phrases and poetic passages were being read.
Psychologists at the New School for Social Research, in New York, found that literary fiction enhanced people’s ability to register and to read others’ emotions, rendering readers more empathetic and enriching their emotional intelligence.
Bibliotherapy is the reading cure where a jaded soul can find comfort and solace between the cover of a book, whether the genre is self-help, philosophy, poetry or fiction, where depression, anxiety and even existential ennui can be assuaged by a reader’s immersion in the written word.
The restorative power of books has been recognised by the Health Service Executive, which last year launched the Power of Words bibliotherapy scheme, to give GPs and members of the public access to high-quality self-help books to help with psychological problems.
Alain de Botton opened the School of Life in London and subsequently opened branches in Melbourne, Paris, Amsterdam and Istanbul. These shops, or "apothecaries of the mind", employ bibliotherapists, two of whom, Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, wrote a book called The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies.
This book is a result of the authors trawling 2,000 years of literature and pooling their reading histories into an excellent distillation of the novels that purport to help with all ailments and causes of malcontent, from hiccups to breakups.
These cures from the apothecary of literature dispense Balzac as balm, apply Tolstoyan tourniquets and bottle Franzen as a pharmaceutical, and help guide a troubled soul through the stormy water of despair and depression.
Hector in Alan Bennett's The History Boys puts it beautifully when he describes how, in the presence of great literature, it's as if a hand has reached out and taken our own.
Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook has declared 2015 his year of books, having found a new, “intellectually fulfilling” passion for reading. With the king of new media anointing old media, we could be at the prologue of a golden age for the book and of the democratisation of bibliotherapy.
Anne O’Neill is on the organising committee of Listowel Writers’ Week; she blogs about books at ofselfandshelf.com