Books Should Send Us Into Therapy: On The Paradox of Bibliotherapy

November 2, 2016 | 13 books mentioned 8 6 min read


covercovercoverAs an advocate for both books and therapy, I determined, upon first hearing the word “bibliotherapy,” that this might be my bespoke profession. I go to group therapy. I read a lot of novels. I’m constantly recommending novels to my group. Members struggling with various problems typically don’t count on me to empathize through personal experience. They count on me for book recommendations. Your adult son is an expat in Europe and is exploring his sexuality? See Caleb Crain’s Necessary Errors. You feel alienated from your wealthy family but drawn to nagging spiritual questions about existence? Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer is for you. Gutted by the loss of a loved one? You could do worse than James Agee’s A Death in the Family (Men’s therapy group, by the way).

covercovercoverThe concept of bibliotherapy — a word coined in 1916 — long teetered on the edge of trendiness. But lately it has tilted toward truth. The highbrow media has weighed in favorably — consider Ceridwen Dovey’s much discussed New Yorker profile on The School of Life’s bibliotherapy team. And then the books: Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously, William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education and, perhaps most notably, The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. Each book, to varying degrees, suggests connections between reading and happiness. A Google Scholar’s worth of criticism — my obscure favorite being Keith Oatley’sWhy Fiction May Be Twice as True as Fact: Fiction as Cognitive and Emotional Simulation” (pdf) — has lent the idea scholarly heft. To be clear: nobody is arguing that reading books is a substitute for the medication required to treat acute mental illness. But the notion that novels might have a genuine therapeutic benefit for certain kinds of spiritual ailments seems legit.

If we concede that books can be therapeutic, then it seems appropriate to explore the potential pitfalls of asking literature to serve that cause. Of initial concern is the inherent presumptuousness of the endeavor. When I advise my fellow group therapy members — whom I know as intimately as I know anyone, if intimacy is defined by the sharing of anxiety, fear, and grief — what they should read, the assumption is that I’m able to divine how my interpretation of a novel will intersect with their predicted interpretations of the same novel. If reception theory tells us anything, it’s that this kind of interpretive foretelling, especially when refracted through the radically subjectivity of a novel, is a matter of great uncertainty, and maybe even an implicit form of lit bullying (“What? You didn’t pick up on that theme? What’s the matter with you?).

coverPlus, novels don’t work this way. They aren’t narrative prescriptions. Even when done badly, novels are artistic expressions necessarily unmoored from reality, expressions that ultimately depend on idiosyncratic characters who act, think, and feel, thereby becoming emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and even physically embodied — quite differently — in every reader’s mind. Yes, The Great Gatsby has universal appeal. But there’s a unique Gatsby for every reader who has passed eyes over the book. (Maybe even Donald Trump has one: “not great, not great; an overrated loser.”) Given the tenuousness and variability of this personal act of translation, it’s hard not to wonder: How could anyone expect to intuit how anyone else might react to certain characters in certain settings under certain circumstances?

covercovercoverIn The Novel Cure, Berthoud and Elderkin aren’t hampered by this question. They match personal contemporary ailments with common literary themes as if they were complementary puzzle pieces. They do so under the assumption that the mere presence of a literary counterpart to a contemporary dilemma automatically imbues a novel with therapeutic agency. They advise that a person dealing with adultery in real life might want to read Madame Bovary. Or that someone who struggles to reach orgasm should read Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Does this kind of advice make any sense?

Consider the adultery example. How can Berthoud and Elderkin assess exactly how novelistic adultery will be translated into thoughts and feelings about something as deeply contextualized as real life adultery? How can they assess if it will be translated at all? Think of all the possible reactions. Use your imagination. A contemporary cuckold could go off the rails at any juncture in the Bovary narrative. He could become so immensely interested in Gustave Flaubert’s intimately detailed portrait of 19th-century provincial life, and the people in it, that he eventually finds the cuckolding theme a distraction, finishes the novel, quits his high paying job, and commits himself to a graduate program in French social history. Books have driven people to do stranger things. Sure it’s unlikely, but my point is this: Telling someone precisely what to take from a novel, based on the superficiality of a shared event, isn’t therapeutic. It’s fascist. A repression of a more genuine response.

More interesting would be to reverse the bibliotherapeutic premise altogether. Instead of asking “what’s wrong with you?” and assigning a book, assign a book and ask “what’s wrong with you?” When I lend books to friends outside of therapy, this strategy (upon reflection) is basically what I’m testing. I’m not trying to solve a person’s problem. I’m trying, in a way, to create one. I want to shake someone out of complacency. Great novels (and sometimes not so great ones) jar us, often unexpectedly. Ever have a novel sneak upon you and kick you in the gut, leaving you staring into space, dazed by an epiphany? Yes. Novels do this. They present obstacles that elicit the catharsis (from katharo, which means clearing obstacles) we didn’t think we needed. We should allow books to cause more trouble in our lives.

covercovercoverBut the sanguine bibliotherapeutic mission will have none of that. Its premise is to take down obstacles and march us towards happiness. Proof is how easily this genre of therapy veers into self-help territory. The New York Public Library’s “Bibliotherapy” page suggests that readers check out David Brooks’s The Road to Character, Cheryl Strayed’s Brave Enough, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. These books are assuredly smart books by smart writers, all of whom I admire. But the goal of this type of book is to help readers find some kind of stability. There’s obviously nothing wrong with that. But the problem from the perspective of literary fiction is that such “self-improvement” books seek to tamp down the very human emotions that literature dines out on: fear, insecurity, vulnerability, and the willingness to take strange paths to strange places. Imagine reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment without being at least little off kilter. You’d shut the book the moment Raskolnikov committed his murder. Being moved by fiction means being willing to be led astray a little. It helps if your rules are not ordinary.

covercoverIt also seems prudent to wonder how the bibliotherapeutic pharmacy would bottle up the work of certain writers. Would it do so in a way that excludes literary genius? Almost assuredly it would. Cormac McCarthy, whom many critics consider one of the greatest writers ever — appears three times in The Novel Cure. Predictably, The Road is mentioned as a way to (a) gain insight into fatherhood and (b) achieve brevity of expression. That’s it — all talk of apocalypse and the survival instinct as integral influences on human morality is brushed aside. Inexplicably, Blood Meridian is listed as a book that sheds light on the challenge of going cold turkey. I have no idea here. None. But I do know that if you are a reader who grasps the totality of McCarthy’s work, your literary soul, as Cormac might put it, is drowning in a cesspool of roiling bile.

covercoverBecause here is what bibliotherapy, as it’s now defined, has no use for: darkness. Real darkness. McCarthy’s greatest literary accomplishment is arguably Suttree, the culmination of a series of “Tennessee novels” that dealt in chilling forms of deviance — incest, necrophilia, self-imposed social alienation — that, on every page, sully the reader’s sense of decency. McCarthy’s greatest narrative accomplishment was likely No Country for Old Men, a blood splattered thriller that features a psychopath who kills random innocent people with a captive bolt pistol. These works, much like the work of Henry Miller (none of whose sex-fueled books get mentioned in The Novel Cure), aestheticize evil — in this case violence and misogynistic sex — into brilliant forms of literary beauty. They are tremendously important and profoundly gorgeous books, albeit in very disturbing ways. They are more likely to send you into therapy than practice it.

The good news for bibliotherapy is that there are too many hardcore fiction readers who know all too well that concerted reading enhances the quality of their lives. A single book might destabilize, tottering you into emotional turmoil. But books — collectively consumed through the steady focus of serious reading — undoubtedly have for many readers a comforting, even therapeutic, effect. This brand of bibliotherapy, a brand born of ongoing submission to great literature — not unlike traditional therapy — does not necessarily seek to solve specific problems. (In my group therapy, members have been dealing with the same unresolved issues for years. We define each other by them.) Instead, what evolves through both consistent reading and therapy is a deep, even profound, understanding of the dramas that underscore the challenges of being human in the modern world.

So, despite my concerns, I remain a believer in bibliotherapy. But its goal should not necessarily be to make us feel better. It should be to make us feel more, to feel deeper, to feel more honestly. In this respect, quality literature, no matter what the subject matter, slows the world down for us, gives us time to place a microscope over its defining events, and urges us to ask, what’s going on here, what does it mean, why do I care, and how do I feel? That might not qualify as formal therapy, but it’s a good place to start.

Image Credit: Pixabay.

is a writer and historian living in Austin, Texas. His articles and essays have appeared in Harper's, the Paris Review online, The New York Times Book Review, The American Scholar, the Virginia Quarterly Review, The New Yorker online, Pacific Standard, Salon, and Slate. He is writing a book about art and expression in the American South called The Wild Beautiful Poets We Grow From The Road.


  1. You should check out Herman Sector, a San Quentin librarian, who introduced bibliotherapy as a way of helping inmates to find a new life. The result was a highly literate population, one that unsettled California conservatives, which included none other than Eldridge Cleaver and a whole host of other prisoners writing books. The stark contrast between educating prisoners through such radical prison experiments that involved summoning their voices and leaving them to rot is chronicled in Joseph T. Hallinan’s excellent volume GOING UP THE RIVER. More on Spector here:

  2. Dear Mr. McWilliams,

    Let us go further.

    I maintain first the obvious, that a great novel is the distillation of a great mind, but second, that by taking in mind after mind of the most extreme and exhilarating kind, a reader’s mind and soul, whether through eerie osmosis or literary orthogenesis, absolutely cannot remain in a state of benign homeostasis.

    She has been psychologically charged, spiritually enlarged, and there simply is no going back to the three dimensions of her place of origin. A mansion with a thousand rooms designed and decorated by a thousand different minds has turned her brain into a kaleidoscopic prism of intricate and near infinite perspective, a righteous madness demanding to be tamed, yes, but rightly harnessed destined to take its reader rider far and wide from whence she came.

    In a word, the very act of reading great fiction over and over and over again transforms the reader into a far more intriguing character than she might have ever imagined she might be. And if not, then she’s either an abysmal learner or she’s reading the wrong books.

    S.A. Traina

  3. Any written sentence of description employs generalities which must be activated by a reader by supplying personal specifics. The sentence “A well dressed man wearing an interesting hat walked peculiarly down the crooked street.” is a different man wearing a different hat walking in a different way down a different street for each individual reader. And this is only a surface difference. An entire person’s life experiences is invested in endowing reality to simple written sentences and the emotional reactions also varies extensively between individuals depending on cultural values. Written words are abstracts of actuality and, although obviously some well written books overcome this since there are general agreements on the qualities of well appreciated literature, how any specific person accepts or rejects a book cannot be generalized. The same book reread by the same reader at different stages of life can have a totally different effect.

  4. “Because here is what bibliotherapy, as it’s now defined, has no use for: darkness.”

    Based on your overview, it looks like you have a point, and I share your concern.

    However, I might just see the other side. More and more therapy is a focused approach to easing specific symptoms. Although it’s probably an insurance-driven trend, it’s not necessarily bad. Not everyone needs to dredge their life like a canal. They need to think a bit outside the box to help take care of an immediate concern. In that context, this less-than-dark approach could make a lot of sense.

    Some people do have to dredge canal and deal with the toxins released. In those cases, one has to look into the dark heart of things and reconsider and even reimagine one’s life. The twin goals are recovery and transformation.

    Then your form of bibliotherapy makes a lot of sense.

  5. Perhaps books like The Novel Cure, under the guise of the stabilizing form of bibliotherapy, aim to sneakily bamboozle the reader into reading unsettling literature. Imagine the reaction of the reader seeking insight into fatherhood upon finishing The Road!

  6. I believe that any type of therapy reinforces two ideas, the first that we are broken in some way and the second that someone or something outside of ourselves will fix us. Sometimes these two ideas do more harm than good for me. I also agree that expecting a book to actually help everyone in a given situation is a bit of a tall order. As with anything, it’s a question of trust in the therapist. In The Novel Cure, for example, one of the suggested cures for PMS is The Virgin Suicides, probably the exact opposite of what you’d want to be reading when you already feel like you’re trapped in a close, ‘sour’ purgatory of femaleness. But perhaps it would work for someone else.

    Nevertheless, I actually find the process of reading through The Novel Cure to be a form of therapy in itself. Feeling some variety of isolating sadness and then flicking through to find entries like ‘Pointlessness’, ‘Cry, In Need of a Good,’ and ‘Dread, Nameless’ is a comfort in the extreme, just to be reminded that you are not the first person to feel this way and you are most certainly not the only person. I often read through the entries themselves and fail to even read the recommended novels, instead feeling buoyed up enough to just get back on with whatever is on my nightstand.

    The other thing that comes to mind after reading this article is the expression, “Good art should comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable.” Perhaps bibliotherapy would seem a more well-rounded discipline if it also paid enough heed to ensuring that the comfortable are having their horizons stretched with prescriptions for the dark and worrying.

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