First aired on Central Morning (23/09/13)
There are a number of things we can do to keep physically healthy: don't smoke, get plenty of sleep, exercise regularly, eat a balanced diet. But following these rules doesn't address our emotional and psychological needs. According to Ella Berthoud, that's where fiction can do us a lot of good. She's a self-described bibliotherapist in London, England, and recently she talked to Newfoundland's Central Morning show about her novel form of therapy.
Berthoud described bibliotherapy as "the art of prescribing fiction in order to cure life's ailments. So people come to me when they have problems, or when they are experiencing reading problems, which could be anything from being stuck in a reading rut or wanting to go off in new reading directions, or being too distracted by life, or their partners or their children or the internet, to read. I help them with those reading issues, and also I help them through life's hurdles and ups and downs by prescribing them great novels."
Berthoud works with Susan Elderkin, and the two have co-authored a book called The Novel Cure. "When you read a novel you inhabit that work of fiction and you become as if you are the characters in the book and as if you are the person that's writing the book. You take on their consciousness and you experience catharsis through the events of the novel," Berthoud explained to host Leigh Anne Power. "Or you can be taken off into a completely different world, and use the novel as escapism, which can be very therapeutic as well."
When asked which novel they prescribe most often, Berthoud cited Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. "We love it because it speaks so much about the human soul and about art, and the way that art can heal almost all problems," she said. "Another favourite is John Berger's To the Wedding, a beautiful book about a couple who are about to get married and the various people who are going toward their wedding."
Clients are often prescribed more than one book at a time, and on repeat visits they discuss their experience of the reading list. This helps the bibliotherapist suggest more novels. Berthoud commented that the response from the medical establishment has been "very positive," adding that a doctor wrote an article in The Guardian in favour of their approach.
Berthoud acknowledged that bibliotherapy isn't a cure for medical problems, but she pointed out that they can prescribe books "that will help you through the healing process." She went on to say that although there haven't been proper case studies done, "anecdotal evidence has shown that people who are depressed have sometimes ended up taking less antidepressants because they've discovered fiction." She also said that people in hospital who are able to read or listen to fiction have been found to use less painkillers.
"We're careful not to say that we can replace medical drugs, we just try to work alongside them as much as we can."