Can Books Heal?

Any reader worth her salt will agree literature comforts, stimulates, elucidates, and educates; but can books heal? For years, I’ve been fascinated with the practice of bibliotherapy, a therapeutic approach that uses literature to support mental health and wellbeing, and it all started with — you guessed it — a book.

A few years ago, I read and reviewed The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George. I loved it so much I bought multiple copies and handed them out with the fervour of a street-corner evangelist. It’s a beautiful story set in a quirky bookshop-barge moored along the Seine. The bookseller, Monsieur Perdu, is far more than a retailer; he’s a self-described literary apothecary, a man with a unique gift that helps him discern and diagnose a person’s predicament with x-ray clarity. He dispenses a literary ‘cure’ by prescribing the right book for “the countless, undefined afflictions of the soul.”

Perdu reflected that is was a common misconception that booksellers looked after books. They look after people.”

The little Paris bookshop by Nina George

I want to believe out there in the world there are book-loving souls such as Jean Perdu, who see into customers’ souls, bind up emotional wounds, and cure their ailments with potent books.

There are books that are suitable for a million people, others for only hundred.
There are even remedies—I mean books—that were written for only one person… A book is both medic and medicine at once. It makes a diagnosis as well as offering therapy.
” 

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George.

Monsieur Perdu is a wonderfully complex character—sage, gifted, well-read, and utterly stuck. He can apply his ‘gift’ to everyone but himself. Little Paris Bookshop is the story of Jean Perdu finding his way out of the dungeon of grief and loss to live again in the light.

So, What about Bibliotherapy?

Long after I finished The Little Paris Bookshop, the notion of bibliotherapy shimmered in my mind. Can books heal? Or, at the very least, can they get people ‘unstuck’? And what about children? Can books do more than entertain kids? What kind of books work best? Aren’t didactic books passé? How do illustrations enhance the healing power?

I’m lucky enough to know Dr Zewlan Moor, a practising bibliotherapist. When the question of the curative power of books came up, she told me, “Books do not heal; they guide.” She would know: she’s a GP and a writer.

Of course, she’s right. Books cannot regenerate tissue or reverse cellular damage. They can’t wipe out viruses or kill staph infection. Books can’t do much for a toothache or a tumour or tuberculosis. In the event of a heart attack, grab a defib quick, because a book sure can’t stop the heart from fibrillating.

Nevertheless, books do offer some real, measurable help in the realm of wellbeing, including lowering blood pressure and slowing the heart rate in addition to reducing subjective feelings of psychological distress.

Health Benefits of Reading Books

Studies show that reading can:

  • Reduce stress and help readers relax
  • Increase empathy
  • Boost mood
  • Combat loneliness
  • Assist with preparation for good sleep
  • Prevent cognitive decline related to ageing
  • Promote longevity!

There’s enough evidence to support reading for wellbeing that the National Health Service in the UK piloted a program called the Book Well, aimed at supplementing health services with reading prescriptions. It offers mostly self-help titles for issues such as bereavement, loneliness, stress, and low mood. Fiction, poetry, and nonfiction are also available. Sounds like a fantastic initiative to me!

You are Not Alone

While physical healing might be a stretch, books do have a unique power to comfort and guide. Stories remind us others have experienced similar distressing events and feelings and survived, and this gives the reader hope.

That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.

F Scott Fitzgerald

While a toothache may remain as sore as ever after finishing a book, a heartache might feel at least a tiny bit better. Hope does wonders for the soul.

What about Bibliotherapy and Kids?

As a kidlit author and former school counsellor, I’m fascinated with the possibilities offered by books for providing comfort and fostering wellbeing in children. I’ve noticed a growing trend for ‘issue books’ over the past decade, and I’m excited that children and young people can benefit from a form of bibliotherapy. They or their parents can easily find books that address the issues in their lives.

Fascinated?

 I’d like to invite you to join me for a Bibliotherapy Symposium on 29 August 2021 hosted by the Queensland branch of SCBWI Australia East/New Zealand. We will:

  • Introduce the practice of bibliotherapy for adults
  • Examine the publishing market for children’s issue books
  • Discover how paediatric speech pathologists use books with clients,
  • Glimpse the role of teacher-librarian as literary apothecary for kids
  • Unpack #TriggerWarning with a YA author

Details and a booking link can be found here. The symposium will be recorded so you can watch a playback at your leisure. The cost is A$20 for SCBWI members (worldwide), A$30 for guests.

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