Bibliotherapy: A Prescription of Books to Heal the Soul

Susan Elderkin and Ella Berthoud first met at Cambridge as English Literature students and, while there, they exchanged books to ease each other’s troubles. Years later, Susan Elderkin the novelist and Ella Berthoud the painter have reignited their schoolgirl practice of recommending books as therapy. This time, however, the recipients of their advice expand beyond their friends and family, to a national and international community of strangers.

“We are bibliotherapists,” reads the friendly and playful introduction of their co-written book, The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies, “and the tools of our trade are books. Our apothecary contains Balzacian balms and Tolstoyan tourniquets, the salves of Saramago and the purges of Perec and Proust. To create it, we have trawled two thousand years of literature for the most brilliant minds and restorative reads, from Apuleius, second-century author of The Golden Ass, to the contemporary tonics of Ali Smith and Jonathan Franzen.”

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One of their patients expresses a desire to live forever, and the bibliotherapists prescribe Jorge Luis Borges’ The Immortals, Tom Robbin’s Jitterbug Perfume, Gary Shteyngart’s Supersad True Love Story, and Stephen Cave’s Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization, all novels and nonfiction which explore the centuries’ old topics of immortality, fear of death, and love of life. Read, they advise, about a man who finds the village of immortalized humans that have esteemed “all exertion vain” and “resolved to live in thought, in pure speculation” and a king who escapes a ritualized prescription of death of an aging monarch. Nine centuries later, he is found celebrating in the streets of New Orleans.

“Dear Suse and Ella” begin a series of letters that read like correspondence between friends. “Today is the third death anniversary of my darling sister and I am missing her terribly.”

“Dear Suze and Ella, It has taken three months after a break up for me to start crying… what I’m looking for is something that is exclusively mine, positive and can help me trace my self-value again.”

And another, “Dear Bibliotherapists, With the drizzle of November and the dark evenings descending so early, I am feeling a strong need to either fly to Tobago or make some serious changes in my life. What they should be, I’m not sure… Can you give me any ideas of where to start, at least with reading?”

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The project is a cultural prescription, a reaction to the modern health field’s drug prescriptions, medical interventions, and algorithms as an nonnegotiable remedy to all life’s ills. “This is a medical handbook—with a difference,” their book reads, “First of all, it does not discriminate between emotional pain and physical pain… Whether you’ve got the hiccups or a hangover, a fear of commitment or a sense of humour failure, we consider it an ailment that deserves a remedy.”

The unique project makes no promise of a complete cure, but offers the rarity of solace, the kind reminder that “you are not alone” and “the temporary relief of symptoms due to the power of literature to distract and transport.” A light dose of history, philosophy, and whimsical characters and compelling plots, taken frequently and regularly may revitalize the mind, soothe the spirits, and heal the body. For more information, visit The School of Life.

Ellen Xie

A native of Bethel, CT, Ellen attended Vassar College for a degrees in Environmental Studies and English. www.ellenguanlee.wordpress.com

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