“Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress. When I get fed up with one, I spend the night with the other”
I’ve alluded to my no-longer-new job a few times on this pages, but I’ve yet to say exactly what it is I do and where. This is because I think it is broadly unwise to tell the whole internet exactly where you’ll be for eight hours of five days of the week. Since I’d like to tell you about a recent professional experience, however, I’d better give you a summary. Since February, I’ve worked for an arts organisation where I am a literature specialist. My job mostly consists of choosing short stories which are used in workshops to promote mental health and wellbeing – so, you go to the workshop, you read Anton Chekov’s ‘The Bet’, and you have a discussion about the value of making decisions for oneself, or about isolation, or about incarceration, or about whatever is going on in your life that the story brings to the forefront for you. This concept is known as ‘bibliotherapy’ – therapy through reading – and it’s going through something of a moment. Which is why, when a colleague and I were recently invited to present at ‘The Book as Cure’ a conference on bibliotherapy since the First World War, I was excited. I have presented at a good number of conferences, all as an academic, usually talking about dusty tomes of history or obscure textual theory. Approaching literature as a practitioner rather than a theorist is still quite new and sexy to me.
Our paper was on a specific programme in which we’ve been running these workshops, and the positive effects on the young participants that we’ve been able to gleam from our data. Since this programme is ongoing, its participants are vulnerable, and much of the process of the workshops is an intellectual property of the organisation I work for, I won’t go into detail here on my personal website, but suffice to say we’re pleased to report that what we do seems to work; the young people who took part seemed to become more empathetic and less accepting of stereotypes, and literature helped that to happen for them. You can understand why I’m over the moon to have this job. Besides reporting our brilliant results, I was most excited to see what other practitioners and theorists of bibliotherapy practice had to say.
I should say that I highlight these papers not because the rest of the conference was anything less than fascinating – indeed I don’t remember when I’ve been so consistently engaged by a full day of listening to people talk about their very niche interests (perhaps I don’t have the best temperament for academia, after all…). It’s simply that much of the conference focused on historical bibliotherapy and, interesting as it was, it didn’t say much to me about the here-and-now, which is very much where and when I’m at. I do, however, feel I have a great foundation of understanding of the roots of my field, and that is a very valuable thing to have indeed.
The first paper that really struck me as vital was by Katarina Båth (Uppsala University) who is researching creative bibliotherapy (i.e., narrative storytelling and poetry as opposed to ‘self help’ bibliotherapy) from the vantage point of literary trauma studies. I had never thought about literature as having the potential to cause or appropriate trauma before, and her research fascinated me, because it forced me to confront the possibility – or, actually, the fact – that what I do has clear limitations, and even the potential to harm. Particularly interesting to me was her critical reading of the potential outcomes of bibliotherapy. What does it mean to get ‘better’? This healing is presented as having the possibility to make a person more resilient and productive, but this is a resilience and productivity that is often contextualised as one’s ability to work and make capital, rather than a resilience and productivity of self. How do we know when a person has become mentally well? They are able to go to work. Or, in some readings, a person has a responsibility to become mentally well so that they can work. I have heard – and echoed – this critique before with certain wellbeing concepts such as mindfulness, and I think it’s vital that as a practitioner of bibliotherapy I continue to centre the person as a holistic entity, rather than as a problem to be fixed so that the machine of capitalism may keep turning.
If the idea is that “you read this book and feel better”, is there a risk of reducing literature to a feel-good enabler? (I couldn’t agree more strongly) #TheBookAsCure
— Dan of the Dead 🧟♀️ (@danni_glover) 14 September 2018
A second paper that has really informed my day-to-day thinking came from Laura Dietz (Angela Ruskin University) who is researching immersion and different reading formats. Immersion is a big-button issue in bibliotherapy; how effective is this piece of literature at making the reader feel they exist in the world of the story, and is this either narratively or therapeutically useful? Immersion seems to at least be narratively useful; as our own paper showed, when a story draws you in to the emotional arc through a traditionally immersive narrative framework (exposition, rising action, climax, denouement), it affects empathy at a brain-chemical level. So it would also seem to have a therapeutic effect, if the effect of therapy is to increase empathy (which in many cases, at least in our organisation, it is). Dr Dietz’s research seems to indicate, however, that the narrative arc is not the only factor in encouraging immersion. In her paper, she argued that the format of the text is also important. Through a study of e-reader formats, she deduced that readers felt more able to identify with the characters and imagine the world of the story in a fixed-page e-format, such as a PDF document, than the more distracting and less immersive scroll-page format, such as an EPub document. This was fascinating to me – if how we read matters as much as what we read, then the implications for bibliotherapeutic practice are clear. I had a couple of follow-up questions after the paper, chiefly about archiving (I could not possibly go into the thorny world of digitial archiving, particularly when archivists themselves have been writing about this for years) and about accessibility. Reading is the most technologically mobile hobby, but for readers for whom technology represents a barrier – such as people with dementia, or people who are living in poverty – the efficacy of fixed-page e-formats holds little comfort. But whatever my professional reservations, Dr Dietz’s research has certainly informed my own, and I’m sure will continue to do so as I strive to make my own work more accessible – which is, after all, the point of all of this surely.
Finally, a note to the organisers. I cannot thank IES for their hospitality enough. I found the conference organisers charming, approachable, and genuinely interested to hear a practitioner’s point of view. I was also pretty thrilled to be in the actual Ministry of Secrets! I’m really excited to have the opportunity to present my work again in the future, and to have more opportunities to mix my academic interests with my professional interests.
Have you ever experienced bibliotherapy, even in an informal context? What’s the last book you read that made you feel seen? For me it was Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, but for overall healing I always turn to Tolkien. Bilbo Baggins taught me lessons about bravery and resilience at the age of six that I have carried with me for life. And that’s the measure of the book as cure.