Reading Books Is Not Just a Pleasure: It Helps Our Minds to Heal


From Psyche: “A few years ago, I had a breakdown from what would now be termed ‘burnout’. It was probably related to the early death of my father after a long-term illness when I was 12, and from which I had escaped into stories and poetry. As I lay in bed convalescing, I turned to books again, reading through the whole of the Raj Quartet (1966-75) by Paul Scott. His richly layered plot and superbly drawn characters in an Indian setting undoubtedly helped me to recover.

There have been other occasions in my life when reading has been more than simple escapism. A partial loss of hearing in my 30s when I was teaching in schools caused me to resort to hearing aids, which I found extremely difficult. However, I found salvation in Benjamin Zephaniah’s memorable poetry reading at the Hay Festival in Wales at a time when I was testing out modern hearing aids. Zephaniah invited his audience on to the stage to dance to the music of his poetry collection The Dread Affair (1985) – and we did.

When I could no longer hear the children clearly, I left the school classroom and became a teacher of adults. After delivering a number of successful courses on poetry and novels, which I had devised myself for diverse adult groups, I decided to research ‘bibliotherapy’. The theory of bibliotherapy is that people engage with literature, not just to escape the familiar world and travel somewhere else, nor only for academic purposes, but to ease the pain of existence, of being human. I discovered researchers investigating the concept, such as Kelda Green, author of the thesis ‘When Literature Comes to Our Aid’ (2018), and practising bibliotherapists, such as Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin who wrote The Novel Cure (2013). I also came across an online book-therapy course, run by the author and journalist Bijal Shah. But I wanted to find out for myself whether there was any truth in the theory of bibliotherapy.”

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