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Reading As Therapy

Untitled, 2002 by Agnes Martin
“Reading is escaping, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real.” -Nora Ephron

Most people enjoy reading, some don’t find a flavour for it, and then there are those of us for whom the thrill of thumbing through the soft pages of a new literary find is akin to a successful first date. The potential of ‘The One’ is a difficult calling card to ignore, be it lovers or books.

Throughout my adult life, my love of reading has gone through various phases. From fully immersed to infrequent, and outright non-existent. It’s been wonderful over the past few years to dive headfirst into this passion once more and make it a priority in my self-care repertoire. Stendhal is quoted as having said ‘a good book is an event in my life’ and I believe this to be true. Not every book you read will be profoundly impactful, but I’ve found that everything I devour has added something to my thinking.

When I was younger I let my reading influence my emotions. As an adult, I’ve attempted to flip that. Now I try to utilise my emotions, experiences or faulty thought processes to influence my reading. To identify where I’m unsure, lost or confused and seek out works that I hope can shine a light where I might be getting lost in the dark. As a writer, when I’m struggling to encapsulate an idea, reading is almost always the answer. There’s something inherently reassuring about reading someone else’s experience when I’m still trying to wrap words around my own.

Reading as Therapy

This is not a new or unique process for me alone. Bibliotherapy is a term that was originally coined back in 1916 by Samuel Crothers, a minister who fully believed in the power of prescribing books to help others understand and work through their troubles. In modern times, the term has held, and the therapeutic power of books is acknowledged widely. You may now even seek out a Bibliotherapist to support you in understanding how to utilise books for personal growth. Ella Berthoud is one such Bibliotherapist, and her book and accompanying website, ‘The Novel Cure’, is a wonderful starting point for anyone seeking to take their love of reading to more meaningful heights.

In her book, Berthoud discusses some of the ailments that surround the world of literature, one of those being the sheer volume of books that now exist in the world. It’s a dilemma I often ponder — how do I make time for the classics, the hidden, the lesser-known, but still keep up with le livre de jour? I originally turned to book clubs as a means to address this but a little review of those around me revealed many of the reading lists these clubs were following were carbon copies of one another — the same books by the same writers of the same level of socio-economic status.

I read a long time ago, in an essay whose author eludes me now, that books are both windows and mirrors. Mirrors, for the ways they allow us to find pieces of our identity and pull together our own individual life puzzle. And windows because they should show us a reality that exists outside our own internal space. A quote that’s managed to burrow deep into my consciousness comes from Murakami’s Norwegian Wood:

If you read the same books as everyone else, you’ll think the same things as everyone else.

On the idea of windows, I believe it’s important to ensure when we’re seeking out books — as therapy or otherwise — we pay attention to the diversity of the voices we invite into our lives. I admit it’s a process I’m still grappling with.

It’s not that we should steer away from the bestsellers lists altogether, just that we need to be more conscious. A personal lesson from the past year when reading the popular books has been to be more discerning and not just think the things I’ve been told about the work. A top-seller these days never enters our hands without a stack of shining reviews, influencer marketing and a five-star PR campaign behind it. Like it or not, most of us are all too happy to go along with the reviews, and believe what we’ve already been told about said book, without applying a more critical lens.

When it comes to reading, it’s important to be open to the opinions of others, but stay true to your own values. Ignore anyone who tries to tell you “you just didn’t get the deeper meaning” because you didn’t give the latest bright young thing in authorship a glowing 5-star review on Goodreads. When a book doesn’t speak to you, it’s important to explore that. If it makes you uncomfortable make sure you pinpoint the why behind the discomfort. These are growth curves and it pays off to pay attention to them.

In the therapy room, both parties have to know when the relationship isn’t working anymore and know when it’s appropriate to walk away. While sitting with a book that doesn’t speak to you is something I encourage, I think it’s equally important to know when to leave a book behind. This is something I have really struggled with. Admitting defeat with a book that everyone else was raving about just felt like a form of failure for me. After the fourth time of slamming a book-that-shan’t-be-named down in a huff, my partner sought to remind me I didn’t need to read it if I didn’t agree with its contents (and also he was rather concerned for the safety of our coffee table).

Life really is too short and filled with other lists of ‘things to do’ to be wasting it on books that don’t challenge you in the right ways.

Jeanette Winterson is quoted as having said “fiction and poetry are doses. Medicines. What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination” which I think perfectly encapsulates some of the ethos behind bibliotherapy. It’s certainly something I’m making more time for in my life.

If you need me, you’ll find me nose-first in a book. Deep in repair.


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