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Reading to heal: on using literature for therapeutic ends

Many of us know the pleasures of immersing ourselves in a fictional world, which seems more dramatic and coherent than the lives we lead. For us lovers of literature, reading a book is one of the inevitable and vital rituals that punctuates our day, irrespective of whether we see it in a religious or secular light. Indeed, reading is such a pleasurable and usually private affair that we might be tempted, in our more naïve and less readerly moments, to see it as a ritual divorced from the more active and time-consuming dimensions of our day.

This interpretation of reading as a ‘diversion’ diminishes the power of literature, and ultimately it diminishes ourselves. A more ‘readerly’ and literary understanding of life acknowledges that life informs art, but also that art can inform life. More fully, stories are the main way that we impose order on our irregular and sometimes tumultuous lives, as we are ‘reading’ our lives whether we are aware of it or not. Great literature therefore becomes a vital resource for ‘reading’ our lives in ways that are nuanced, humane and resolution focused, as many traditional Western stories are attempts to come to terms with difficult issues germane to the human condition.

I would like to detail here some of the principal ways that reading can be a form of bibliotherapy. A more inclusive account can be found by reading some books on bibliotherapy:

  • The most obvious use of literature for a therapeutic purpose is to read for entertainment. Reading can indeed be a way of pleasurably forgetting our troubles for a while so that when we return to them, we are refreshed and hopefully more emboldened to tackle them.
  • With the right kind of book, reading can be a form of catharsis. For example, when we are sad, a melancholic novel can act as a container of our feelings and provide a safe space for them to be expressed so that we feel better. Sometimes immersing ourselves in another person’s pain feels safer than directly confronting our own.
  • Reading can act as an education in empathy. When we engage with a novel or play, for example, we often make an imaginative attempt to identify with the characters, especially the protagonist. This can help us in two ways in our lives: a) we can become better at understanding the plight of other people, especially those different to ourselves; at the very least we can cultivate the willingness to understand difference; b) a more empathic attitude towards others can help us adopt a more compassionate attitude towards ourselves. If we see ourselves not as some deficient object to be criticised harshly (as our inner critic would have it), but as a protagonist in our life story, then we can honour the complexity of our own struggles.
  • Many stories - especially of the traditional three act kind -are solution focused: the problem that the protagonist encounters in the first act is finally resolved at the end of the narrative (or in tragedy, it is not resolved satisfactorily but at least the mistakes are highlighted). Stories can therefore act as a means of gaining ideas for tackling certain life problems or for providing a catalogue of errors of judgement.
  • Reading can sensitise us to the poetry of everyday life. Through reading poetry or literary fiction, we can learn to exist in a more richly textured world where objects are alive with significance.
  • We do not always need to read a text with a willing suspension of disbelief. In literary studies, sometimes a more sceptical attitude is in order (a ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, as it is called). This can be useful when we are wishing to denaturalise ideological trends that are seeking covertly to seem entirely unquestionable. To put this more simply, the literature of a historical period, especially popular fiction, tends to reproduce the dominant ideology and to engage with it (either it will reinforce it, criticise it or more likely do a mixture of both). Reading with a sceptical eye can expose the ways in which our society tries to make certain ways of living seem more ‘natural’ than others, even though there is no actual ground for this (to go with a widely known example from the movies, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ is, among other things, an argument for the ideology of the family, as it suggests that bachelorhood leads to unenviable consequences personified by Mr Potter). Being cognisant of the fact that literature can be a seductive way of orientating people in a status quo fashion can provide us with knowledge of the rhetoric of streamlining. This, in turn, can liberate us to lead lives more suited to our individual situation.
  • Reading can provide a privileged window into the recesses of our psyche. The books that we love, fear or detest can give us an idea about what we hope we are, what we wish to be, what we fear we are and what we hate about ourselves. Examining our reasons for our feelings towards certain books can act as a mirror to the self, and lead to productive self-examination.

If you are currently in therapy and wish to incorporate some bibliotherapy into your sessions, then you can use the above as a good grounding for how to use literature for therapeutic ends. If you are currently searching for a therapist, and wish to use literature as a key cultural resource, then look out for a counsellor who lists it as one of their abiding interests.                   

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Dr Alexander Fox-Choice Counselling at Harley Street

I am a counsellor with three private practices across the country (Harley street, London; Dundee; St. Andrews). I am trained to Masters level in pluralistic counselling, and I utilize a wide variety of different therapeutic approaches when working with clients. I also have a doctorate in English literature and my literary training informs my work.… Read more

Written by Dr Alexander Fox-Choice Counselling at Harley Street

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