On bibliotherapy

Today I learned about the existence of ‘bibliotherapy’ — which is the name for an ancient practice of encouraging reading for therapeutic effect — through this The New Yorker article. Its first use was traced to a 1916 The Atlantic article, where the acquaintance of the author ran a ‘bibliographic institute’ from the basement of his church, where he dispensed reading recommendations with the intention to heal. Bagster, the said acquaintance, in prescribing books to middle-aged clients growing cynic, said, “You must read more novels. Not pleasant stories that make you forget yourself. They must be searching, drastic, stinging, relentless novels.” Today, bibliotherapy has taken many forms, from literature courses for prison inmates to reading circles for elderly people with dementia, or simply for people who want to reclaim the joy in reading. There is also such a career as a bibliotherapist, where, just like Bagster, would prescribe books for clients to read according to their current woes: being stuck in a rut in your career, feeling depressed in your relationship, or suffering bereavement, etc. In fact, this was how Alain de Botton’s School of Life started, before the organisation started to offer tools other than books — such as courses and workshops — to help people living a fulfilled life.

I also love the part where these friends gifted each other books as an answer to the problems they were dealing with — something I am familiar with as every time I’m struggling with something, I would READ, or ‘self-medicate with books’:

As their friendship developed, they began prescribing novels to cure each other’s ailments, such as a broken heart or career uncertainty. “When Suse was having a crisis about her profession—she wanted to be a writer, but was wondering if she could cope with the inevitable rejection—I gave her Don Marquis’s ‘Archy and Mehitabel’ poems,” Berthoud told me. “If Archy the cockroach could be so dedicated to his art as to jump on the typewriter keys in order to write his free-verse poems every night in the New York offices of the Evening Sun, then surely she should be prepared to suffer for her art, too.” Years later, Elderkin gave Berthoud,who wanted to figure out how to balance being a painter and a mother, Patrick Gale’s novel “Notes from an Exhibition,” about a successful but troubled female artist.

I think about all the time when I want to understand some issues, and as I am currently based in a small town where intellectual conversations and socialisation can be scarce, I would scour through Google Scholar for relevant journals on the issues and read, almost obsessively. I feel the need to credit my growing awareness of radical issues through the book club Because We’ve Read, ran by American-Iranian activist Hoda Katebi. I am not sure if the examples I cited also count as ‘bibliotherapy’, but if the agony I was experiencing was an aching, perpetual curiosity, wouldn’t the books and scholarly journals be the perfect antidote?

Currently reading in my tabs:

  • This lens takes the movie Parasite from an allegory of ‘class conflict’ to one of imperialism, and illuminates the film’s recurring motifs of English, militarisation, and appropriated Indigenous material culture.
  • “The practice of italicising such words is a form of linguistic gatekeeping; a demarcation between “exotic” words and those that have a rightful place in the text.” Against italicising foreign words.
  • If Adam Smith had strapped on a bee suit—or a safari jacket, or a scuba mask—he could have discovered that the animal kingdom is, in fact, a chamber of commerce.
  • You are not presumed to be innocent if the police have reason to suspect you are carrying a concealed wallet.”


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