Can Reading a Book Work as Therapy?

Picture of a pharmacy book with sage in the pages being used for therapy.

Books have been a popular method used to escape reality for centuries. It’s not hard to see the allure – books offer worlds that we can transport ourselves to to escape the mundane and often trying demands of our day-to-day lives. But can books be therapeutic? New research suggests that the answer may be yes!

What is Bibliotherapy?

Dr. Jenni Ogden is a psychologist with further postgraduate qualifications in clinical psychology and neuropsychology. She is also a self-professed “book addict” who believes in the healing effects books can potentially have on our psyche. According to her, the idea of reading books as a healing activity isn’t new. In fact, King Ramses II of Egypt had a special chamber where he kept his books. Above the door were inscribed the words “‘House of Healing for the Soul.’” Then later, in the 19th century, famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud frequently incorporated literature into his practice. Dr. Ogden states that: “ Medical professionals and psychologists have been prescribing books for their patients to read for a hundred years or more. But it was more as an adjunct to other treatment rather than a treatment in itself.”

That being said, there is such a thing as “bibliotherapy” – according to a term coined by Samuel Crothers in 1916. Bibliotherapy involves using books to help people solve their personal issues. In the U.S. (and the U.K. soon after), bibliotherapy training programs were established, usually in connection with medical schools and hospitals. Years later, in 2007, philosopher Alain de Botton co-founded the School of Life, located in London, with the goal of helping individuals develop emotional intelligence through culture. This school included a bibliotherapy service which held in-person or remote sessions through Skype or via phone. The purpose of these sessions was to explore one’s relationship with books and the pressures they’re facing in their lives. After uncovering the patient’s problems (whether it be with grief, anger, depression, significant life changes, or so on), the bibliotherapist would then prescribe a list of books that would provide inspiration and enrichment. These books would cater to the individual’s unique set of problems. Among the most commonly prescribed books were philosophy, poetry, and creative nonfiction, though fiction proved to be the most successful.

The Power of Reading Fiction Books

Why is this? Dr. Ogden explains that “research has shown that literary fiction enhances our ability to empathize with others, to put ourselves into another’s shoes; to become more intuitive about other people’s  feelings (as well as our own), and to self-reflect on our problems as we read about and empathize with a fictional character who is facing similar problems.” In essence, when we are emotionally affected by a character, we may actually be responding to how that character connects with ourselves and our true emotional state. This sort of connection means that if the character then finds happiness at the end of the story, we may be more likely to believe that we, too, can find happiness. Characters can be learning vessels from which we learn how to better deal with and respond to our own real life experiences. This can lead to the development of new coping methods that we may have not previously considered without the help of the novel.

Is Reading More Therapeutic than Watching?

But why books? Can’t we get the same results from watching a good film? Dr. Ogden says this isn’t the case. According to her, “A good film may of course also have therapeutic properties, just like a good book, but in general, our minds and our imaginations are more engaged when reading because we need to fill in so much that is not specifically put into words.” In fact, books with too much detail tend to become boring. Part of what makes a good book engrossing is that we are able to engage our imaginations with the author’s. We can place ourselves in the perspective of the character and, in doing this, become a part of the story itself. This level of connection and integration is harder to accomplish with a movie because the movie is far more visually concrete, with actors concretely filling in character parts while we play the role of observer.

Books to Broaden the Mind

Unfortunately, there is one problem that many readers, even professed bibliophiles, fall into, and that is falling into a narrow pattern of reading. When we read for relaxation, we may tend to stick to a certain selection of reading material, and seldom branch from that selection. When a bibliotherapist gets involved, they can find other books that we might not have even known existed. These books can be challenging but stimulating, and as a result we might find new genres and titles that we love. Like any specialist, bibliotherapists are experts in their field, which means that their knowledge of books is both expansive and eclectic, which helps to broaden our horizons. Because of this, bibliotherapy can be an effective alternative treatment to individuals seeking literary guidance through their daily struggles. Books are, after all, a fun means of learning to grow, develop, and lead a life full of happiness and unlimited wonder.