14 Oct 2014

Inside a book therapy session: a novel cure?

As Richard Flanagan wins the Booker prize, there is a growing belief reading is about more than just entertainment and escapism. Channel 4 News eavesdrops on a “bibliotherapy” session.

Can reading – and we don’t just mean on your iPhone, or your Twitter feed – help you cope with the stress of modern life?

There’s a growing belief that it can. Researchers have shown that reading a book can help people de-stress more quickly than almost any other method. In America, a new “slow reading” movement has sprung up, encouraging people to put down their screens and pick up their paperbacks.

Here in the UK, a scheme set up a year ago to prescribe self-help books to people with mild to moderate mental health issues has been a hit: 275,000 people have borrowed books from their library as part of the Reading Well: Books on Prescription scheme. Loans of the books on the list, which is vetted by health professionals, have doubled since the scheme – a partnership between the Society of Chief Librarians, the Reading Agency and the Arts Council – was launched, and a new version for dementia patients will be launched in January 2015.

Bibliotherapy is also a growing concept – where therapists, usually literature experts, suggest books to help people through issues in their lives. Watch the video below to see how a session works.

Want your own prescription? Ella Berthoud from The School of Life (in the video above) has some suggestions to get you through some current, common ailments. She’s a book lover and expert rather than a medical professional – for more serious ailments, or for more information about the self-help books scheme above, speak to your GP.

Problem: The arrival of autumn
Prescription: The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

This novel, spanning the a period of nearly a century, follows the fortunes of Alma Whittaker, a botanist who discovers for herself the ever-changing evolution of species before Darwin himself does so. The reason this is such a great read is that it takes us from Alma’s birth in 1800, Pennsylvania, to her unexpected trip to Tahiti, and back to Amsterdam, all in the pursuit of two mysteries – that of moss, and that of her highly unusual husband. Alma is a fascinating character, and the evolution she sees before her will remind you that autumn will eventually transform into winter, then spring.

Feeling a bit blue
Prescription: The History of Tom Sawyer, by Mark Twain
When you’re feeling a bit down, the irrepressible Tom Sawyer is the very antidote you need. His joyous shirking of school and chores, his eternal devotion to the outlaw Huck Finn and his love, Becky Thatcher, reveal him to be a loyal and passionate friend, and his dedication to adventure will take you as a reader to whole new levels of daring. Read this to remind you of the joys of rebellion and revelry that can be found even in the meanest of circumstances.

The ongoing economic misery
Prescription: South Riding, by Winnifred Holtby
This is a book to remind you of the opportunity for collective good in a time of economic downturn. The heroes and heroines of this fervently political novel do their best for their community, despite having no funds and little encouragement.

The relentless cycle of bad news in the headlines
Prescription: I Claudius, Robert Graves

When the current news is getting you down, we recommend a good old-fashioned escape into an era when the news was being made by terrifying Roman emperors. I Claudius by Robert Graves will hook you into a classic soap opera involving Caligula, Tiberius, Augustus and Claudius himself. Poisonings, mass murders, incest and political intrigue are constant; all too many echoes of modern news there, but set in a distant, romanticised past, all told by a consummate story teller.